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New Career, Same Skillset: How to Transition from Servicemember to Civilian

As you transition into the civilian world, the ensuing lack of structure can present a challenge, but also an incredible opportunity.

No matter your military branch, every service member’s day has one thing in common: Structure. Day in and day out you are told where to be, what to wear, and what to do. This structured environment often provides comfort, as no one is ever confused about what their typical day entails. As you transition into the civilian world, the ensuing lack of structure can present a challenge, but also an incredible opportunity.

Becoming a civilian means getting a “fresh start” for your career. But with so many choices in career paths, many of which don’t directly fit the jobs we had in the military, it can all feel overwhelming. It can leave many of us asking, “What does our military service equate to in terms of job qualifications? And how do you even apply for a job with no previous experience?”

The good thing is, even if you don’t have experience at the exact jobs you’ll be applying for, veterans bring a unique set of highly sought-after skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers. So, how do you take the skillset the military has instilled in you and make yourself marketable for the job you want?

First, identify your strongest skills that you honed during your time in the military. Then, split them up between hard and soft skills. Hard skills are based on job-specific knowledge such as technical skills you learned at your military job school or while serving. Soft skills, on the other hand, are more personal qualities we had to bring to the job, like professionalism, work ethic, communication, teamwork, collaboration skills, critical thinking, or problem-solving skills. Many of us take these soft skills for granted, but they are one of your most important tools in launching your civilian career.

In fact, many employers put a much greater emphasis on finding a new hire with strong soft skills, as these are evidence of a teachable, enthusiastic employee that can learn on the job. This emphasis allows you to focus your resume and cover letter and show how the soft skills you honed in the military make you a perfect fit for your ideal job.

Communication

Coming out of the Marine Corps, I was a mechanic, but I had no desire to pursue that career path in civilian life. It forced me to reflect on what I did over the last four years outside of just my military occupational specialty. I held many billets in my time in the Corps, including being a Platoon Sergeant. I was in charge of over 60 Marines, overseeing them, ensuring they were making their appointments, being their biggest advocate, and many times mentoring them. Every day, I had to communicate with superiors, keep an extremely high level of professionalism, and collaborate with peers.

In a civilian career, good communication skills can help you with pretty much anything really. Effective communication is such an incredible soft skill that it is one of the most important things to learn and utilize on a daily basis. Whether interacting with co-workers, leaders, or customers, it can sometimes be the “make-or-break” soft skill during hard or important conversations.

Teamwork

One of the biggest soft skills taught at basic training in the Marine Corps is teamwork. Understanding that if one person fails, we all fail. Learning to work with people of different backgrounds and beliefs for one common goal is paramount to the success of the mission of the Armed Forces. 

If you can work well and be a team player in the military, that translates extremely well in the civilian workforce, regardless of career field. Being able to work with anyone to complete the mission is a very valuable soft skill that employers look for in candidates.

Problem Solving

Daily life in active duty presents challenges both small scale (like where I’m going to get chow after work that fits in my budget) to larger scale (like juggling demands from my Platoon Commander, my First Sergeant and also my Marines). Sometimes it felt like there wasn’t enough time in the day. I always used to say that being a Platoon Sergeant felt like being a firefighter, but you haven’t received any training, there are hundreds of fires of different sizes and intensities, and it is your job to figure out the order in which to fight them. Two words: problem solving. So many things we encounter in the military whether in garrison or in combat help strengthen our ability to problem solve. 

Problem solving can make you an extremely valuable employee in the civilian world. The CEO of my company from day one has said “I don’t want to be presented with issues, I want to be presented solutions.” The ability to problem solve comes in extremely handy to help think of solutions before bringing up an issue to the executive team. 

Discipline

Discipline is another soft skill that was instilled in me from the day I stepped on those yellow footprints. It’s one of the guiding principles of our armed forces. Rank Structure, and how we do business all rests on “good order and discipline” In today’s ever evolving world of “work from home” discipline is extremely valuable. Without you going into the office every day and sitting at a desk, how can your next-in-line leader know you’re getting your work done? When I switched career fields prior to the pandemic, my job was remote. The shift was refreshing, not constantly being micromanaged. However, without discipline, that sort of work environment can get you in trouble. Understanding what needs to be done, and getting it done whether or not someone is watching you is important for career success, and you achieve that with discipline. 

While my resume lacked for the hard skills that matched my civilian career aspirations of working in the personal financial world, my resume’s soft skills made me extremely marketable, and they continue to help me throughout my career as a Certified Financial Trainer.

Transitioning to the civilian world doesn’t have to be overwhelming. A closer look at the soft skills we gained in the military proves to ourselves and any future employers that we’re more than capable of succeeding in any career path we pursue.

Made possible with support by RecruitMilitary.

—Michael Poulin, 42R Senior Musician, Sergeant, US Army Reserves; 2147 Light Armored Vehicle Mechanic, Sergeant, United States Marine Corps.