This may sound harsh, but hear us out: It’s not that your service and the experience you gained is meaningless, it’s just that civilians may not understand it.
To be clear, your service is valuable, appreciated, and applicable in civilian careers in many ways. However, your experience is uniquely yours and dependent on the time, command, role, peer group, and the leadership you served under.
Essentially, you are the only one who can fully and effectively translate your experience to the civilian world. It’s critical that you learn to communicate it when searching for a civilian job.
There are many aspects of military service that transcend branches, time periods, and roles, so veterans involved on the employer’s side of the hiring process may be able to connect with you in a general way. They likely understand and can relate to the skills you honed and may even have general knowledge of your specific role.
Their experience, however, is likely to have been completely different from yours, making many acronyms and role-specific jargon as foreign to them as their civilian counterparts.
How much do soldiers really know about the Coast Guard? How much do airmen know about the Navy? Remember what you thought you knew about the military before you joined? This is what it’s like to be a civilian. No hard feelings, but they likely just don’t understand that world.
For hiring managers and interviewers without a military background, your military experience means only what they perceive from outside sources; often, those sources are film and television. It’s up to you to make your military background meaningful to them.
If you want your military experience to make an impact in your career search, you have to learn to effectively communicate your skills and experience so employers know what it can mean for them. Start with these hard truths and tips:
Your Military Training
Truth: Your military training is more indicative of your potential than your skill.
Why: While the technical skills you learned in the military are valuable, you might be competing with candidates with industry-specific experience and education. Furthermore, much of the equipment you worked with may not directly translate to the civilian sector, so using acronyms or specific equipment names to describe your training and experience may tell an employer little about the real value you can provide to their organization.
So-called “Soft Skills” aren’t the technical skills we pick up while doing our jobs. These are the skills we learn that show how we do those jobs. They are how we learned to interact with co-workers, handle stress, and work as a team.
Tip: Technical skills are important but be sure to highlight the value of the soft skills your talents can bring to the organization. These are strengths veterans are known for, like leadership, team building, problem-solving, commitment, innovation, and initiative.
These are foundations an organization can build upon that other candidates may be lacking. A company will have to invest resources into training you; Give them a clear picture of why they should.
Your Military Bearing
Truth: Many employers without personal military connections have preconceived perceptions of servicemembers and veterans.
Why: Consider the cinematic soldier you grew up watching on the big screen in movies like “Full Metal Jacket,” “We Were Soldiers,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” They are full of stereotypes like the strict, disciplined, single-minded, mission-oriented, and immovable servicemember who only acted when told by superiors.
These are the impressions many non-veterans have grown to equate with military service. Like it or not, Hollywood has not done the military community many favors in terms of mental health stigmas, work ethic, and demeanor.
While these impressions continue to be disproven, there are still many holdouts. Unless someone knows a veteran personally (and remember: many do not), some impressions of the military community are only what the media has given them.
Tip: When interviewing, be sure to focus on your skill sets and talents, but also consider discussing times in which you had to pivot at a moment’s notice. Always support your anecdotes with results. While it is important to be professional, be cognizant of your delivery. Speak in a conversational manner, and avoid being too rigid, scripted, or overly rehearsed.
Your Military Work Ethic
Truth: Veterans’ reputation for taking orders and being an effective part of a team can actually hurt you.
Why: These are two, intertwined issues. In the military, checklists, protocols, and marching orders direct servicemembers’ daily responsibilities and tasks. While this may be true (to an extent) for the civilian sector as well, a lack of understanding may cause hiring teams to equate following orders with an inability to take initiative.
Military members are also drilled to work as a team, and taking individual credit often becomes counterintuitive to veterans. We like to give credit to the unit, but the unit isn’t applying to a job, you are.
Tip: You need to show that you can be effective on your own. Discuss initiatives you led or ways you improved your organization or subordinates, and support with quantifiable results. It is one thing to show initiative, it is another to garner results.
Do not tie your expertise to checklists unless the role you are interviewing for requires attention to detail. Demonstrate your thought and ingenuity outside of a checklist or any ‘standard operating procedure” scenario.
When discussing your accomplishments or experience, use individual pronouns like “I” and “me” rather than “we.” Teamwork is important in the civilian sector, but the phrases “We achieved this goal” and “I achieved this goal” can make a world of difference in determining your credentials for a role.
Make no mistake: your military experience has prepared you for success in a civilian career, and thousands of employers understand and value the skills you bring to the workforce. However, it is up to you to understand and translate exactly how your unique military experience can help you excel in a role and in a company.
You are your best advocate in your career search.
Paige Cox contributed to this article. Paige is a content writer and production manager at RecruitMilitary and a U.S. Army veteran.