From Fatigues to Civvies: 5 Transition Secrets to a Civilian Career

Photo courtesy of Nick Swaggert

You're leaving the military, and you've got your marching orders: Find a job in the civilian workforce.

Get ready for a tough mission. While the employment situation for vets has improved over recent years, it's still harder out there for you than it is for your non-military peers.

After years of being in a clear chain of command, a uniform and a closed culture with very specific working practices, the civilian working world comes as a culture shock to many vets, says U.S. Marine Maj. Nick Swaggert. Creating a resume? Interviewing? Networking? Most veterans "really haven't been coached to do these things," Swaggert said.

He offers these tips to help you conduct a job-search process that will result in a quick victory.

1. Get Ready for Battle

Many vets are surprised at how hard the job hunt is, Swaggert notes. And no wonder: In the military, the career path was clearly laid out for you. But in the civilian world, it's up to you to take the initiative.

"Finding a job will be the hardest job you'll ever [do]," Swaggert said. "You have to realize how much you need to learn." And, he says, you're going to have to get used to facing rejection.

You'll get through it easiest if you apply the kind of strategy-setting you learned in the military. "You have to set short-term goals and long-term goals and hold yourself accountable to those," Swaggert said.

Start by organizing your educational and training documents: The Department of Veteran Affairs suggests you have copies of your Report of Separation and Verification of Military Experience and Training to verify your military service, training and experience. It may also be helpful to provide transcripts of any military training and coursework you completed. In any case, these are useful to help build your resume.

2. Establish Your Battalion

Networking in the military world is considered taboo, since "it means going outside your chain of command -- which is a huge no-no," Swaggert said. As a result, veterans don't often know how to do it, or feel comfortable trying.

But Swaggert says veterans need to break from that mold if they want a successful job search. Just as you needed the support of those in your unit or division to get things done in the military, you need people to help guide your search, push your resume into the right hands and serve as references in the working world.

Swaggert suggests veterans seek out other veterans and ask them what they do and how they got there. "Additionally, find veteran sympathizers -- like parents and spouses of veterans," he said. "They would love to help coach, guide and mentor."

Social media tools like Twitter and LinkedIn can help you find people to reach out to.

3. Draft Your Pitch

While attending a reserve event over the summer in the Netherlands, Swaggert explains how one active-duty service member gave a five-minute monologue in a monotone voice.

In the military world, that's common. But if you want to impress a hiring manager, you won't get far. "That's not how you give your elevator pitch in the civilian world," he said. "You need to rehearse and practice telling people who you are."

Coming from a culture where the team comes before the individual, this may feel uncomfortable at first. But this is your chance to explain your experiences and skills and how they would translate to the job you are seeking. Check out's "How to craft the perfect elevator pitch" for help.

4. "Demilitarize" Yourself

One of the things Swaggert consistently cringes about is when he sees someone wearing a military uniform to an interview. "What is the message you are sending?" he said. "You are telling an employer you know how to wear a uniform and that you still don't know how to wear civilian clothes. That's not who they want to hire."

You need to show the hiring manager that you can adapt to the civilian workforce. And that's not just in dress.

It's also in language: "Each company has its own corporate language," he said. "If you walk into an interview speaking military language and not their corporate language, you will not get the job."

Also make sure you:

  • Avoid addressing the hiring manager by first name.
  • Use civilian time rather than military time.
  • Make sure you've translated your military skills into civilian terms before the interview.

5. Get Intel on Companies

"Finding a job is about matching both the candidate with the role," Swaggert said. "Too many veterans believe it's about whether the candidate is worthy of the job, but it's also about if the company is right for the candidate."

This is where your network can come in handy. "Who you know will help you, maybe, make an introduction," Swaggert said. But even more importantly, "what they can do is provide you with a lot of intelligence on what that company is like," he said.

Veterans may even point you toward companies that make a point of recruiting veterans and which offer assistance in developing your skills for the civilian workforce.

Ultimately, Swaggert says the most important thing you can do for yourself is to choose a job you want to do.

"I've seen so many veterans focus on what their salary is going to be instead of what they want to do. They end up with a job they just hate," he said. "Take a job you think you'll be good at, and the money will come later."

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