How To Transition From Military To Civilian Work

I recently learned about the passing of a friend, a Vietnam vet struck down by a heart attack way too early in life. I worked with him at a small video store while I was in high school. The thing I remember most about Ken – aside from his inspiring, heroic and tragic war stories – was how unhappy he was in his job. He had enjoyed being in the service but had been honorably discharged because of an injury and could no longer perform the job he loved. He openly discussed with me his struggle to find meaningful work after the war.

Ken accepted jobs he did not like just to pay the bills. His story is not unique. Many ex-service men and women have difficulties making the connection between the skills they learned serving their country and those available in the civilian world.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I have worked with a number of ex-military people over the years, including an ex-Navy Seal now enjoying a successful career using his highly-trained attention to detail as a quality assurance executive and two ex-Army Officers leveraging their people leadership skills succeeding as an operations manager and human resources lead. Plus numerous other military personnel who made the successful transition from military careers to civilian jobs by leveraging what they do best. You, too, can find the job you want and deserve.

There are jobs in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps that prepare you directly for civilian careers like engineering, programing, mechanics and people leadership. However, those without a specialty can find it difficult to connect the dots.

Finding The Crossover

A few months ago, I was the keynote speaker at a Goodwill Career Expo in Phoenix, AZ. I received several questions at the end of my speech about how to effectively switch careers after performing specific work for many years. My response was to find the crossover – to look for skills and talents you use in your present career that apply to the new career you are interested in.

One woman told me she had spent over a decade running a theater company. She now wanted and needed to find a higher paying job, but seemed confused on how to market her skills and talents in a different industry. Her case was quite simple. She managed a successful business for ten years. Take away the fact that it happened to be a theater company, and you are left with someone who successfully managed profit and loss, people, hiring, performance management, sales and marketing for over a decade. So she successfully managed a business for ten years in one of the most challenging industries there are for making money, theater.  This woman could apply her business and management skills to just about any other business on the planet. The key to her career search success? Focus on her successes that apply to the positions she desires.

In this same spirit, sharpshooters may live and enjoy their purpose while working as video game testers, a supply sergeant as a shipping manager for a supply company, a communications specialist working for a radio station, an officer as a leadership coach, a fighter pilot as a commercial airline pilot, or anyone with front line experience working as an adviser on Hollywood war films or teaching the skills they mastered to others.

From Theatre To Medical

In 2000, I decided to transition from my first love, theater, to a higher paying corporate job. Despite side jobs during high school, college and between theater productions, my core career experience remained: theater director, manager and producer. I completed a degree in theater arts and never held a corporate job. To supplement my labor relations experience in the arts, I completed a distance-learning law program as a back-up to my theater career.

The first step in my search for a new career involved creating a resume to highlight the crossovers in my past experiences. I wanted my resume to fit the corporate job I felt I could get and wanted: labor relations specialist. My resume transformed from a proud list of my Broadway and other theatrical productions to a detailed description of my interactions with unions, plus my people and financial management experience. To ensure I got it right, I enlisted a professional resume writer to help refocus the last eight years of my life.

With my new resume in hand, I set a goal: apply for six labor relations jobs on every night. In less than two weeks, I got the call that would lead to an eleven-year career in the new specialty I targeted and wanted, human resources in the medical industry.

Making Your Transition

The same principle that took me from a career in theater to one in the medical industry applies when transitioning from military to civilian jobs or to any career change. To make your transition, you need to take four steps:

  1. Look for the work that interests you.
  2. Determine your crossover skills and talents.
  3. Refocus your resume to emphasize your talents and the skills that apply to your new target.
  4. Set short and long term goals and objectives for your career transition, and stick to them.

A helpful resource for anyone looking to make the transition from military to civilian work is Monster’s military job website:, with its Veteran Jobs section. The free site will help you examine your crossover potential with its military skills translator and can match you with available job opportunities.

To be successful in your transition, you must think differently about what you have to offer an employer and the world. Also, keep an open mind. Know that some of what you learned in your military career will be transferable to a corporate job, some will not. I remember being called to my manufacturing floor to address an ex-Army officer who commanded his struggling team standing on top of his desk in a very direct manner. While this method might have worked for him at critical times in the military, it did not go over well in the civilian environment he now occupied. Remember to adjust your style and leverage your skills and talents accordingly.

By changing your approach to your job search, you will find the employment you desire. Best of luck to you!

Please check out my new book How to Find a Job, Career and Life You Love (Second Edition) at


Published on Forbes, 11th August 2014

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