Getting A Job After The Military: Know How To Answer The Question Of ‘So What?’

Vultures' Row

"So what?"

"Huh?"

"So WHAT? Your experience. So what?"

I'd just given my friend a copy of my resume to read. "So what?" wasn't the reaction I'd been hoping for, but he was absolutely right.


I'd written my resume with the same precision and attention to detail with which I'd written several dozens of fitness reports over the years. I described my accomplishments in perfect detail, even figuring out some tangentially relevant numerical details about my experience. All the resume guides told me I needed to quantify what I'd done.

So there were $1,296,800,000 worth of aircraft in that hangar that I helped manage. I'd planned training for 446 Marines in innovative and groundbreaking ways. I'd saved $4,634 one year by replacing paper towels with toilet paper and by a groundbreaking "bring your own damn pens to work" program. Those last ones were actually Marine Corps-wide programs, but I figured I could take credit for my unit's share.

But...so what? That's nice and all. But why does anyone else care? I thought I'd escaped the usual veteran resume pitfalls. I didn't mention my military awards without explanation. I didn't include specialized acronyms. I didn't use "motherfucking" as an adjective or an adverb. I had a document that showed what a great Marine I was. But it didn't tell a prospective employer why hiring a great Marine would make his life easier.

That's the change in mentality that every veteran needs to make on his or her way out the door from military service. The civilian world isn't a promotion board that will give you the position you want as long as just show them how good you are.

The question civilian employers often ask, either implicitly or explicitly, is "So what?"

Whether you've spent your time fixing aircraft or leading patrols, sooner or later things will always come down to that. Whether you're submitting a resume or doing an interview, the "So what?" should be the follow-up to any statement you make.

It's not about renaming your job title as "frontline manager" instead of "squad leader," though that may be part of it. It's about realizing that it's not about the world owing you anything. You may indeed be a war hero extraordinaire. You may have given up a lot for this country. That's great, but so what?

The business with the job opening you're considering probably appreciates your sacrifices, but whether it's a small family business or a multinational corporation, it exists to make someone money. They might want to help you, but they've got their own problems — whether it's a kid with college bills or a stock price that's tumbling. So rather than think that they owe you a break, think about what it is that they need and be the person who can provide it. Everyone loves vets, but very few people will put their livelihood on the line just to help one out.

It isn't about proving what you've done. None of that matters. It's about proving what you can do in the future, and more importantly, why that should matter to them. You may have supervised a lot of people in the service, but it doesn't always mean the same thing on the outside. You may have commanded a lot of people in the military, and that's unquestionably valuable experience, but there's no private company organized into battalions, or even platoons.

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There are some military skills that are easy to transfer to civilian life. If you operated the same type of equipment a private company operates or sells, there's an obvious crossover. Pilots can fly. Truck drivers can drive. MPs can ruin people's days. But many vets have military specialties for which there's no civilian equivalent. Of those, too many think that having demonstrated hard work or leadership is enough. But there are lots of people willing to work hard, and many civilians have jaundiced view of military-style leadership, whether justified or not.

So beyond "leadership," what did the military teach you? What did you do specifically to make your part of the military better that it was when you got there? More importantly, why should anyone else care?

If you developed and executed a pre-deployment training plan, then you have project management experience. If you've moved a unit, you've done logistics management. If you've managed a supply account against a budget, you have ordering and budgeting experience. That's not saying you should puff up your resume, just that you need to see it from the employer's perspective.

He doesn't care that you went to Iraq or Afghanistan. He cares what you learned while you were there that that will benefit his business in the future. I know that leading a combat patrol entails more responsibility than the night shift at Home Depot, but they don't need someone to cordon off an IED, they need someone to run the paint shaker. So you'd better translate why your experience is relevant in a way he'll understand.

Hiring a new employee can mean literally tens of thousands of dollars just in onboarding costs. What are you bringing to the party that's worth that kind of money? No one owes anyone else a job.

Everyone eventually gets paid what they're worth to their employer, so make sure that employer sees your value.

Carl Forsling is a senior columnist for Task & Purpose. He is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot who retired from the military after 20 years of service. He is the father of two children and a graduate of Boston University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CarlForsling

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