Your Military Experience Means Nothing (without Translation)

Job seeker veteran

TO BE CLEAR, your service is valuable, appreciated, and applicable in civilian careers.

However, your unique military experience isn’t inherently understood by anyone but you.

When it comes to applying for jobs as a veteran, you are the only one who can fully translate your experience to the civilian world. Though the military community has a wealth of valuable skills and experiences, communicating effectively can make or break interview process.

It’s up to you to show what makes your military background meaningful to a civilian employer. Here are some considerations about how to describe your military background - during the job hunt and beyond.

Your Military Merit

Fact: Your military merit is more indicative of your potential than your skill.

While the technical skills learned in the military hold value, you are competing with candidates with industry-specific experience. Furthermore, much of the equipment you worked with does not directly translate to the civilian sector, so using acronyms or specific equipment names to describe your service will tell an employer little about the value you can provide to an organization.

Tip: Technical skills are important but be sure to highlight the value your talents can bring to the organization such as leadership, team building, camaraderie, problem-solving, performance under stress, commitment, innovation, and initiative. These are foundations an organization can build upon that other candidates may be lacking. Either way, a company will have to invest resources into training you; Give them a clear picture of why they should.

Your Military Demeanor

Fact: Many employers without personal military connections have preconceived perceptions of service-members and veterans.

Consider the cinematic soldiers on the big screen in movies like Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and Saving Private Ryan; 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 holdouts. Unless someone knows a veteran personally, 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 on 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

Fact: Employers who are unfamiliar with the military may not know what to expect from veteran employees – unless you show them.

In the military, checklists, protocols, and marching orders direct servicemembers’ daily responsibilities and tasks. While this may be true for the civilian sector to an extent, some hiring teams may equate following orders with inability to take initiative.

Tip: Do not tie your expertise to checklists unless the role you are interviewing for requires attention to detail like commissioning or audits. Demonstrate your thought and ingenuity outside of a checklist or SOP scenario. Discuss 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.

When discussing your personal or professional accomplishments, use pronouns like I and me rather than we. Servicemembers have been taught to think in terms of the team, but the employer is interviewing you, not your unit.

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 how your unique military experience can help you excel in a role.

You are your own best advocate in your career search!


Paige Cox is a military veteran and spouse as well as the content writer and production manager for Search & Employ magazine.

This article was originally published in Search & Employ magazine.

By Paige Cox

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