How to find a civilian career after leaving the military

by Vern Evans

Lisa Elswick’s boss at United Service Organizations was an Air Force veteran of 26 years when he retired from his distinguished military career, ready to take on a new challenge in civilian life.

There were only a few wrinkles in his plan.

“When he retired, he had never interviewed for a job,” said Elswick, the vice president of transition programs for the USO. “He didn’t have a resume. He never wore a suit. It’s things that those of us that have lived in the civilian world all of our lives take for granted. It’s just part of the process.”

“What’s next?” and “How should I proceed?” are common feelings shared by many veterans, regardless of their age and experience while in the military. Service members spend their time in the military following orders, having many decisions made for them. When that comes to an end, veterans must make an important decision: what they want in a civilian career, if they don’t intend to go to school.

Many veterans will pursue a career that highlights their military experience, like medics pursuing an occupation in healthcare, or pilots working for an airline.

“But if you’re an infantryman, what are you going to do?” Elswick said.

Veterans should consider the answer before separating from the military, and develop a plan to pursue that goal. Organizations like the USO and Hire Heroes are ready to help service members with that transition. Another group, Veterans Transition Support, offers free career-training programs that help veterans with coaching to search for jobs, writing resumes and cover letters and how to prepare for interviews.

VTS volunteers like veteran Merlyn Cruz-Feliciano, who have gone through the same change, can relate to the struggles others can experience when in the job market.

“I loved my job as a logistician when I was in the military,” she said. “I was very good at it, but I just knew in my heart that was not what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, a lot of veterans kind of stick with what they know.”

Cruz-Feliciano eventually decided to pursue a masters degree in mental health therapy.

For veterans who want to enter the workforce, getting the guidance needed to help find the right career is critical. The next — and maybe most important — step is showing a veteran how to market their skills by building an impressive resume tailored to the job they want.

“Translating military skills to a civilian resume is a major, major struggle,” Elswick said. The USO also offers interview preparation, including a website that uses artificial intelligence to give real-time feedback.

For veterans unsure of what career they want, Elswick said trending jobs include government contracting, cybersecurity, health care and law enforcement.

“Federal resumes are very different from civilian resumes, and you need a very specialized skill set to get it through their applicant tracking system,” Elswick said.

In addition to constructing a solid resume, veterans should set up a LinkedIn account to connect with peers and companies that are looking to hire. Indeed is another popular site for seeking out available jobs. Another resource for veterans is Military Friendly Employers, which lists more than 1,500 organizations that are designated as military-friendly businesses.

Veterans may consider pursuing certifications that could help their military skills transfer to the civilian world as well. Participating in a Skillbridge program, a fellowship that can act as an off-ramp between military and civilian employment, is another option as well. And seeking out mentors who can offer advice for navigating the job hunt and interview processes, plus daily life in the civilian workforce, can be invaluable.

“There are actually jobs everywhere,” Elswick said. “But how do we prepare our veterans to enter the civilian workforce?”

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