How to Land Your First Civilian Job: A Guide for Veterans
The U.S. military is arguably the most effective training machine ever created, turning civilians from all walks of life into one cohesive unit that accomplishes its objectives, even in the face of great uncertainty. Even the idealized Spartan culture can’t compare to the efficiency with which our military system creates effective leaders and executives.
Which makes it all the more surprising to me the number of veterans who find their way to my doorstep looking for advice on their struggling job search and transition to post-military life.
I spent three invaluable years at West Point before beginning my civilian journey, which includes founding and running several companies, advising large and small organizations, and building highly effective teams. Today, I am the managing director of Startup Institute, which helps people transition into careers that they are passionate about by providing them with the hard and soft skills and the networks to succeed, and I work with many veterans to help them kick start their job searches.
If you’re navigating the transition to civilian life, here’s my advice for finding the right opportunities and showing that you’re the right person for the job.
Figure Out What You Want to Do and Why
The military career path doesn’t take much input. From the beginning, we’re trained to complete the job we're given with 100% intensity. And this doesn’t quite translate to the working world—rarely will you see a job opening that says, “Executes with 100% intensity.” While it’s certainly an attribute that will make you successful, it isn’t the lead.
So, the first step in your job search is to figure out what job you want and to develop a story that supports it, rather than stating, “I’ll do what needs to be done.” Did you enjoy being the logistics officer? If so, tell the story of how preparing your unit to deploy can help your future employer streamline its shipping operations, rather than sharing the full range of your skills and hoping you land on an open job req. The mental transition is a subtle switch from purely displaying results to telling the story on how you executed tasks to achieve results that tie into the needs of the organization.
If you’re uncertain about what you want to do, use job fairs, your veteran network, and informational interviews to understand the full set of jobs you’re highly qualified for and how your military experience supports that.
Translate Your Skills
The military’s highly specific job codes and titles (often filled with acronyms) don’t help hiring managers in the civilian sector understand what you can do for them. So, at a minimum, it’s important to translate your resume out of military jargon and into language that shows your transferrable skills. Working in the S-3 shop of a deployed battalion doesn’t help your interviewer understand what you can do. Turn this into something that can be easily understood and applied to the civilian world, for example: “Created a unified plan of action, ensured coordination between cross-functional teams, and provided feedback to improve the process.”
Better yet, gain some civilian work experience through internships, apprenticeships, or volunteer work so that you can tell stories about how your military experience translated into your ability to be effective on the job. These proof points allow the hiring manager to understand where you’ll add value—and, perhaps more importantly, show your ability to adapt to different types of work environments.
Hollywood created a mental image of the soldier that isn’t entirely accurate but is widely held. Everyone thinks we spent our days locked in hand-to-hand combat, storming buildings, and blowing things up. We follow orders. We don’t mix well with civilians. We’re inflexible.
While these stereotypes aren’t characteristic of everyone who’s been in the military (and certainly not to this extreme), you’ll still need to break them during your job search. In particular, it’s important to show initiative and flexibility. And don’t wait to be asked—work examples of these behaviors into the stories you tell.
The good news is, organizations like Startup Institute can help with all three of these points. Our program, for example, helps you build the hard skills to succeed in a career in tech in the areas of web development, product, and design, technical marketing, or sales and account management. Moreover, through our core curriculum, we personally coach you through the nuances of telling your story—helping you figure out what you want to do, how to translate your skills, and how to break through stereotypes—so you can ultimately transition into a career that you’re passionate about.
Learn more about the programs at Startup Institute at join.startupinstitute.com/veterans.
Photo of military courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Jason Henrichs, Managing Director at Startup Institute has been a founder, investor and advisor to numerous startups and is an active mentor across the Techstars network. Jason began his education in leadership and engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point and completed studies in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Sciences at Harvard University.