How to Successfully Transition from Military to Civilian: A Guide For Veterans and Former Military Personnel

Randall Hansen
by Randall Hansen   Career Advice Expert 

by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.

Regardless the length of your tenure in the military, making the transition to the civilian workforce has to be daunting. Finding a new career and beginning a job-search is a major undertaking for any job-seeker, but it’s especially challenging for someone who has spent years serving in the military.

The goal of this article is to show you a pathway — key steps and tools to help you succeed in finding a new civilian career and job.

10 Steps — Tools and Activities — to Empower You to Succeed in Your Transition From Military to Civilian Employee

1. Maximize Transition Assistance. The U.S. government offers transitioning veterans several great no-cost career programs.

First, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), a partnership among the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), to give employment and training information to armed-forces members within 180 days of separation or retirement. TAP consists of comprehensive three-day workshops at selected military installations nationwide, covering topics such as career exploration, job-search strategies, and job-search tools preparation.

Second, the Veterans Gold Card, a joint effort of the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) and the VETS, which provides unemployed post-9/11 veterans with intensive career counseling, career guidance, skills assessment, job leads, and follow-up. These services are available across the country at any One-Stop Career Center.

2. Identify Your Strengths. Take time to assess your skill set, especially the skills you like performing — and perform well. These strengths can come from your military experience, as well as any previous experiences.

What are some typical strengths from serving in the military? Working well in teams, leading others, operating efficiently under pressure, meeting deadlines, following directions, maintaining high levels of discipline, sustaining strong work ethic.

The National Veterans’ Training Institute, established in 1986 to further develop and enhance the professional skills of veterans’ employment and training service providers throughout the United States, and administered by the University of Colorado Denver, provides a great tool in helping you brainstorm your set of strengths: 21 Strengths Arising from Military Experience.

3. Assess Your Interests. Regardless of what the duties you performed in your military service, take time to make a list of the activities you enjoy — and especially make note of ones that you take special delight in and have a knack for doing. These can include military and work-related, but should also include hobbies and weekend activities.

Try to make a list of 5-7 such activities and interests that energize and motivate you.

4. Research Civilian Careers. Once you have a clear vision of your strengths and interests, the next step is uncovering careers that match these. The worst thing any job-seeker can do is to fall into a job or career that is unfulfilling and unsatisfactory.

The harder you work at uncovering careers that match who you are and what you like and are good at doing, the happier you’ll be — and the more successful.

See our Career Exploration Resources for assistance on researching careers.

5. Decide About Additional Training/Education. You may determine, through your research, that the career or careers that most interest you require additional education or training — degrees and certifications. If you face this situation, your next decision is whether you have the ability to delay entering the workforce so that you can get the education you need.

The good news for all veterans is that there is a GI Bill that provides educational benefits. For more recent vets, the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays up to 100 percent of educational (including vocational) expenses — depending on your time of service. Honorably discharged vets with at least three years of active duty receive 100 percent, but vets with only 90 days of active experience receive a benefit of 40 percent of expenses.

6. Build a Profile of Your Accomplishments and Skills. What employers want to see from ALL job-seekers is a history of your accomplishments.

Civilian employers do not necessarily care about or understand your service record — unless you can pull out your key accomplishments and skills. Think of accomplishments as anything you did during your service that resulted in a positive outcome, from improving efficiency to safely transporting people or cargo.

Accomplishments should be your key selling points; they are not job duties or responsibilities. Accomplishments focus more on how you did your job and how you contributed to the organization’s (or mission’s) success.

Learn more here: Career-Job-Work Accomplishments Resources for Enhancing Next Job Search, Promotion.

See also our article, What Do Employers Really Want? Top Skills and Values Employers Seek from Job-Seekers.

7. Transition From Military Speak/Slang to Civilian. One of the pet peeves that many employers express about transitioning veterans is that their resumes are so cluttered with military jargon that it makes impossible to comprehend and value the military experience.

For example, saying your “MOS was an analyst for the MIIDS” would mean nothing to most civilian employers.

Both the Army and Navy offer “COOL” Websites — Credentialing Opportunities On-Line — that can help you determine how your military career, ratings, and experience can translate to civilian careers.

Finally, O*Net, sponsored by the Department of Labor, offers a Military to Civilian Crosswalk that relates military occupational classification codes to similar civilian positions.

8. Develop Job-Search Resume. Once you’ve completed the previous steps, now understanding your career goals and having developed a list of critical accomplishments (from your military and all other experience), it’s time to tackle writing your job-search resume.

Your resume is THE most important document in your job-search. Your resume must be focused (employers do not like to hire generalists), targeted (to the job you seek), and professional.

Rather than trying to cram all our resume advice here, we suggest using our many resume resources and resume samples to help you develop a resume that will make employers take notice.

9. Research Employers. Knowledge is power in job-hunting. Always plan to research the employers you are interested in working for. It’s important to understand their hiring decisions, corporate culture, and benefits.

Furthermore, while most employers report that they hire veterans, there are most certainly some companies that are more vet-friendly than others. In fact, some employers have special programs for former military, including companies such as Amazon, BNSF, GE, Home Depot, Boeing, Verizon, Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, and others.

Organizations such as G.I. Jobs,, and Military Times provide lists of top employers for veterans.

10. Conduct Your Job-Search. A good job-search includes a multitude of methods for tracking down job leads, starting with networking (connecting with colleagues) and ending with the general job boards (such as Indeed, Monster).

You must be pro-active in tracking down job leads — and then following them up. Do not just reply to job postings. Use and expand your network of contacts — including social media sites. Use the Websites of the companies that most interest you and apply to job openings directly — and then use your network to try to find contacts within those organizations.

This topic is much too broad to discuss in totality here, but here are several critical articles that can help you better understand the civilian job search:

We also recommend using our job interviewing tools and resources to help preparation for job interviews; our salary negotiation resources for understanding your value on the job market — and how to obtain the best job offer.


Final Thoughts on Successful Transition to Civilian Workforce

Remember that you do NOT have to go through the transition alone.

Maximize your use of the many no-cost veteran and career resources — including career consulting to resume-writing to job placements. These resources are there to help empower you to success in your transition from military service to civilian worker.

Remember, too, that job-hunting takes time and effort — and that you will have good days and bad days. Think fo you job-search as a mission and use your tactical patience to stay focused on the objective — a good job in a career you enjoy.

Finally, while the focus of this article is on job-seekers, numerous former service members want to be — and have become — entrepreneurs. If you fall into this category, please see our entrepreneur resources, including these specifically for veterans:

  • Vet-to-Vet Advice for Veterans Considering Starting Their Own Businesses
  • Vet-to-Vet Advice for Veterans Considering Buying into a Franchise


Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Job Action Day 2013 This article is part of Job Action Day 2013.




About the Author

Career Advice Expert

Randall Hansen Career Advice Expert

Dr. Randall S. Hansen is the founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the web, as well CEO of Dr. Hansen is a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles to his name. He is frequently quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country; he is also an educator who has taught at the college level for more than 15 years.


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