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Young and (already) retired: How to leverage your military experience if you’ve rarely - if ever - worked in the civilian world
by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: Waste Management

It’s a common scenario: A young veteran is released from the service and it’s on to the hunt for a civilian job. Every employer wants to know about his/her prior work experience, but because the veteran joined the military straight out of secondary school, he/she hasn’t had the opportunity to gain any. Not only does this make the ‘work experience’ section of one’s resume difficult to fill out, the space under ‘education’ isn’t that easy to write, either - not for those who did, indeed, enlist right after high school graduation. An impossible challenge? Not at all - it just depends on how you examine your situation and your military experience.

John O’Connor, president and owner of Career Pro, Inc., an outplacement and career consulting firm based in Raleigh, N.C., reminds us that veterans spend their entire time in the service facing - and resolving - impossible challenges...and a few other things, too. “If they’ve only been in the service - no matter what part of the armed services that we’re talking about - they’ve done a lot more and have accumulated more experience than they will probably ever give themselves credit for,” he says. Remember, not long after going through training for a specific function, you were probably charged with not only carrying out those functions, but you were being evaluated pretty much from the get-go.

“Assuming they had an honorable discharge and did pretty well in the service in terms of their performance evaluations, they haven’t had time to look back at all.”

Now’s the time, then, to look back and conduct an inventory of everything you did while in the military. Think that you didn’t do much? Well, counsels O’Connor, think again. “They don’t realize what they’ve done and how much they’ve done - even if their only other work experience is running their own lemonade stand when they were growing up, or working at the pool during the summer,” he says. “They tend to underestimate their capabilities, skills and the experiences they’ve accumulated - even during a short time - in the military.”

For example, he illustrates, let’s say you were a communications specialist in the Army. Your tendency may be to state: “I just handed out radios and made sure that they worked. I also did other things in the supply area.” What were those “other things?” With whom did you work? What additional projects and duties were you tasked with while you were a communications specialist? What steps did you take to carry these projects and duties out successfully? What did you learn from my military experience and jobs? In asking yourself these questions, you’ll discover that you know a lot more than you think you do. And, O’Connor adds, if you worked with confidential information and have obtained a certain level of security clearance, be sure to list it on your resume. There are many employers out there that regard this as a significant asset.

It’s also important to consider the ‘extras’ - the activities and events, formal or informal, in which you participated while in the military. Did you collaborate with any civilian organizations while in the service, such as defense contractors or other subcontractors that were hired by the military? Outside of your general duties, were you ordered to conduct any special projects? What kind of recognition did you receive for this, whether official or unofficial? Were you ever responsible for leading a squad or platoon for anything, including physical fitness drills or tactical training? “Many people say, ‘That was just a part of what I did,’ but it’s still important,” O’Connor emphasizes. He notes that due to the nature of the military in general, many veterans are well-versed in teaching and training others - a skill that almost every company can put to good use.

When Susan Schieren, CEO, Transitioning Leaders - a consultancy based in Leeds, N.Y. - went into the military, she had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. During her service, she was a microwave radio relay repairman. When she got out, she went back to college for a master’s degree. While she concedes that this is just one approach, she does believe that veterans who want to boost the skills on their resumes should consider going back to school. “The young veterans that think they don’t have transferable skills should think about getting further education - especially with the new G.I. bill,” she says. “They definitely have the advantage over prior military folks because the G.I. bill gives them so much more than those that got out in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Before leaving the military, however, Schieren advises would-be veterans to consider what they’re passionate about. This can be anything from hobbies, to your favorite course in high school. What activities are you naturally attracted to? “Find out what your passion is, but also think about geography,” she says. “If your passion is to be a forest ranger, you shouldn’t be living in Las Vegas.” And, if your circumstances don’t allow for geographical flexibility, it’s necessary to discover what industries exist in your location, and how you can blend their needs with your own.

Regardless of whether or not you believe you require further education before entering an increasingly competitive job market, Schieren, like O’Connor, underlines that the skills you accumulated during your service are not to be dismissed. “Many people in the military don’t understand that they do have transferable skills that they can put on a resume,” she says. “They stuck it through in the military, and that’s a huge plus. They met their commitment, and there is nothing wrong with putting that on their resume.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Return to July/August 2011 Issue