A military job like U.S. Air Force aircraft controller doesn’t exactly translate to the majority of civilian career options. At least that’s how Eric Lundberg felt once he gave the Air Force his notice to retire.
Lundberg is not alone. Sixty-eight percent of veterans say that securing employment opportunities that match their military experience is one of the main challenges to finding a civilian job, according to a 2014 survey by VetAdvisor and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “There is a critical element in transition,” says Ruth Christopherson, SVP of Citi Community Development and program director of Citi Salutes, Citi’s company-wide initiative that supports service members, veterans and their families. “That’s the translation. Not everyone knows that veteran military language.”
Some of that difficulty is a result of the military mind-set that there is a playbook for everything — including finding a job. After all, most military operating procedures, from running a nuclear submarine to changing battery frequency, are spelled out in some sort of field manual. That’s just not the case, though, when it comes to snagging a job in the corporate or tech sectors.
For Angel McDowell, who was a major in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps, one of her challenges was that she followed the career map provided by the Army, as opposed to fine-tuning her skills to one unique specialization. In her two decades of service, her enlisted duties ranged from medical lab technician to troop commander — not one of which easily translated onto a résumé. As a result, she stuck to focusing on project management.
“I asked my mentor for advice, hired a résumé writer and started looking for a job,” she says. “I followed all the transition steps you learn about while still in Army, but I did not have much success.”
For someone who enlists after high school or has never had to apply for a civilian job, the process can be daunting. Translating military skills to an appealing civilian résumé can be particularly challenging, because military titles are often obscure — “field officer” and “financial technician,” to name a few. Military-transition and mentoring programs, like Veterans on Wall Street or the university-accredited FourBlock (which prides itself on having a strong relationship with diverse employers), can help find clarity.
“Each veteran’s transition is unique,” Christopherson says. “Every aspect of their life is up in the air. Mentoring is that personal touch that takes the unknown and makes it less scary and less of an obstacle to be successful.”
Experts recommend that vets making the transition to civilian life outline their work duties in a typical day as well as for an atypical day. But, they add, it’s best to remove all military jargon. “Explain it as if you’re talking to a 4-year-old,” says Robyn Coburn, a résumé coach specializing in the entertainment industry and founder of WorkInProduction.com. “Then you can start seeing how your particular duties translate to job-speak.”
Veterans shouldn’t feel compelled to find a new job that exactly mirrors their former military duties. In fact, one of the perks of having general responsibilities like report acquisition and handling of multimillion-dollar equipment is that they translate to a myriad of jobs, from script supervisor to operations manager. Industries all across the board value personal interests and unique experiences that go beyond job titles.
For veterans seeking a civilian job, experts recommend creating a résumé that reflects a desired trajectory: Look up descriptions for dreams jobs and then incorporate keywords from those descriptions onto the résumé itself.
For vets who choose to go back to school, the Columbia University Center for Veteran Transition and Integration offers online modules that go hand-in-hand with specific higher education coursework. The program is like having an insider whisper all the tips and tricks to getting through school, from effective note-taking to navigating campus life. “Here is a university that understands the [transitioning] veteran,” says Christopherson. “Columbia’s program and partnerships help guide a career path into the workforce.”
Transitioning vets are also privy to tech-forward resources designed to help them enter civilian life. For example, Military.com’s Transition App, which is part of Monster Worldwide and supported by Citi, links vets with job matches based on specific experience and title by aggregating data from Monster.com’s employment website. In matching skills developed while in the military to databases, the app recommends jobs that not only target primary skills, such as leadership, but also takes secondary and tertiary skills into account. It also offers an interactive checklist to assist with transition concerns, like financial education and preparing for relocation. A planned update to the Transition App this spring will expand content for military spouses and veterans with disabilities, further assisting a smooth transition for the entire family.
Shift, a tech-focused recruiting platform for those transitioning from the military, is another service that assists with career changes. Shift’s founder, Mike Slagh, a former U.S. Navy bomb-squad officer, started the company in 2016 to give future veterans a leg up in finding tech careers by facilitating fellowships before officially leaving the military.
When Lundberg gave the military his six-months’ notice, he started to look for a civilian job. “The transition is crazy,” he says.
After 10 months of searching on his own, Lundberg reached out to Shift. The recruiter matched Lundberg’s Air Force skill set with the needs of tech companies, resulting in a three-month fellowship with Citrine Informatics, an AI platform aiding in the acceleration of materials and product development. As part of his fellowship, Lundberg educates material scientists on how to optimize Citrine’s AI platform by providing customized training.
“That’s exactly what I was doing in the Air Force,” he says. “When I’m at a training event, I can translate what I did to what I am doing now.”