Your Military to Civilian Career Change Resume

By John U. Lord

A good resume showcases your abilities and puts you on track for your next “dream job.” A bad one will undermine your chances of success no matter what you’ve achieved in the past. Knowing how to write an effective resume is a key career skill, but if you’re like so many others making the transition from the military to a civilian career, you may not know how to get started.

Here are a few simple tips that will can make a big, BIG difference.

First of all, let’s be clear about what is not effective. The most common-and least effective-type of resume we see from clients is a boring list of “the things I did.” This is a resume-to-nowhere… except frustration, disappointment and failure. Better, but still not good enough, is the resume that says: “Here are the things I did in my last job (or jobs), and here are the results I achieved.”


We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not there yet. Think about the marketing model presented above. Accomplishments that are unconnected to problems your reader is dealing with have no relevance, and hence no value. Both types of resumes-the one that simply lists activities and the other, somewhat better approach that lists accomplishments-fall into the same trap. They don’t make a connection with the person reviewing your resume.

They don’t answer the all-important question that will be on every interviewer’s mind: “So What?”

All good resumes showcase meaningful results by saying: “Here are the things I did. Here are the results we achieved, and this is why those results mattered.” It is up to you, however, to make clear how these accomplishments also matter to the person reading your resume.

The very first step you need to take is to identify your transferable skills. Four more steps follow in the process to shape a truly effective resume. Let’s take a look at each one.

Step One: Translate Your Military Skills For The Civilian Job Market

Understanding how the skills you’ve acquired in the military can apply to the private sector is one of the most common issues we deal with in our work helping our clients move into the civilian workforce. It’s not hard to see why. How, for example, does a weapons specialist show that his skills have value in the business world?

The answer is to change the way you see your skills and to look at them on two different levels. To continue with our example, a weapons specialist has a very specific skill set that applies to a range of different weapons, their parts and components, their proper maintenance, and their use in the battlefield. This is hands-on knowledge coupled with manual dexterity.

But there’s another level of skill here, a higher level that we might call “meta-skill.” We identify these by generalizing. If you can put a weapon together in record time, then you obviously have terrific kinesthetic ability: you’re good with your hands and are comfortable manipulating objects and pieces of machinery. There’s probably more. A weapons specialist needs to be well-organized, knowledgeable about how to deal with hazardous materials, careful about the proper care of valuable equipment.

Abilities like these-common in the military-are in demand in the business world and have a direct applicability in careers like IT security, operations management, environmental engineering in manufacturing or other industrial settings.

Career expert and author, Richard Nelson Bolles – suggests there are three broad groups you can slot your skills into:

  • People – related to managing, communicating, training and teaching, coaching, informing
  • Data – everything related to researching, record keeping, compiling, translating, storing data
  • Things – ability to operate machinery, computers, equipment, tools, assembling and disassembling, repairing, recycling

Think about these categories. Chances are your previous work included some mixture of all of them, but when it comes to the job you’re applying for now, which of these should you emphasize? You can highlight your most desirable skills in your qualifications summary.

Again, make it easy for the person on the other side of the table to see exactly how you fit in and the value you bring. Also, head any concerns or objections by clarifying exactly how your military experience has prepared you to excel n the private sector.

Step Two: Match Relevant Skills To Each Opportunity

The key to a successful resume-and a successful job search-is to do your research and understand what employers are looking for. One of the best ways to do this is to read through ads in papers and trade publications, company websites and check out position descriptions used on automated job boards such as and that are relevant to your target audience.

If you have an interest in a particular industry or company in that industry, go to their websites and read their latest press releases, marketing material, or any published documents that tell you what they are looking for and the language they use to describe what’s important to them. You can then use this language in your cover letter, resume and during an interview to mirror these values and priorities.

While you’re at it, be on the lookout for whether or not an employer has a policy for actively seeking out job candidate who are veterans. Check to see if company executives or other key people have military backgrounds.

Next, match your skills to those that are in demand. In this way you are building a database of core competencies to incorporate into your resume.

As you start out in pursuit of a new career you may have multiple resumes because you are targeting a variety of companies and or industries. As you narrow your focus your resume will also become more focused.

Step Three: Format Your Resume To Direct Attention

Use headlines, bullets and indented lists to prominently display your transferable skills. But be careful: resumes today are routinely scanned by search engines and databases. Avoid anything that will make it difficult to scan the text including underlines, check marks or anything other than solid bullets, or non-standard fonts.

By bulleting your transferable skills, you are giving visual aids to the hiring/ interviewing manager and highlighting keywords that may resonate with him or her. The manager will then review the other sections of the resume to find more detailed information.

Begin your resume with a “qualifications summary,” information for the manager reviewing the resume that immediately clarifies your skills and what industry area you are interested in. Don’t make the manager go looking for this; it should be right up front.

Follow with a short list of six to nine bullets (twelve maximum!), which provides specifics and shows clearly the value you bring to the table. These skills must be relevant to the specific job you’re applying for.


Step Four: Document Your Relevant Accomplishments

Include examples of how effectively you’ve used these skills and the value they brought to your organization. Some career coaches ask the following questions to substantiate the strength of the skills:

  • Challenge/ Problem – what challenges/ problems did you face?
  • Action – what steps were taken to solve the problems? Your military background should provide many examples that would work perfectly here.
  • Results – what were the results of the actions taken and why were they valuable?

These actions and results are what go on your resume as your accomplishments.

Make sure to select accomplishments for inclusion in your resume, make sure you choose ones that you can talk about with self-confidence and authority. These accomplishments have to be real; resist any temptation to exaggerate. Prepare for any follow-up questions you may be asked and have all the important details at your fingertips.

IMPORTANT NOTE! Never consider your accomplishments-or, for that matter anything else in your resume-without relating them to a specific job opportunity. You’re not writing your autobiography; your resume is yourmarketing brochure! Use the needs and wants a specific prospective employer to help you select what to include, what to emphasize and what to leave out.

Step Five: Answer The “So What” Question

Your accomplishments in the military only matter if they produced results that matter. For example, if you were part of a team that was responsible for cost-cutting, it adds much more weight to your resume if you can point out what role you played and the bottom-line savings that resulted from these suggestions.

Or if you were responsible for coming up with an eco-friendly modification to any kind of operational process, describe the positive impact on your community and environment, mention any favorable media coverage, awards or consumer feedback.

Bear in mind that above all else, your resume needs to convince! A hiring manager needs to be persuaded (helped to understand) that the value you bring to your new position is clearly derived from your transferable skills and is grounded in the depth and breadth of your hard-won expertise.

HR professionals often say that past performance is the best indicator of future potential. Assume that when a hiring manager reads your resume they’re looking for achievements that demonstrate that you are a high-potential candidate, but always remember that this judgment will always be subjective. The accomplishments they are looking for are results that would matter to them and their businesses.

Make it clear and write it well, and your next employer will see you not as just another job applicant, but as an articulate, intelligent prospective employee with future leadership potential.

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