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by Nikki Scott | March 10, 2009

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When Steve (not his real name) left the Air Force in 1997 and started looking for a job in corporate America, he found that civilians had no comprehension of what he brought to the table with a military background. Although the former officer spent 12 years in the military, he had a hard time finding a position in the private sector that matched his level of experience. "I was responsible for $30 million in equipment and two dozen people," he points out, "but I was only offered junior project management positions." Hiring managers told him that "the real world was different, and that I had to be able to think on my own." In fact, "one interviewer told me that 'all that marching didn't prepare me for a real job.'"

Steve's case is not unique. Across the board, professionals making the career shift from the military to the private sector are faced with numerous obstacles. But these obstacles are surmountable, with careful planning and the right attitude.

De-Militarizing your resume
Resume preparation is particularly complex for transitioning military personnel because it involves "de-militarizing" one's job descriptions - translating military experience to civilian tasks. You'll be hard-pressed to get an interview, much less an offer, unless you're able to describe what you have to offer - and it's not as easy as you think. In the military, "we used a lot of acronyms for just about everything," explains Tracy Kalas, who left the military two years ago to pursue a career in HR. She had a hard time explaining how her experience in the military transferred to the civilian sector. After serving in the military for six years, she expected to have people appreciate her veteran status. Instead, she was treated "like someone who has never possessed a job before."

"The majority of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) don't easily translate to civilian jobs," adds Jeff (not his real name), another veteran who recently moved into the private sector. "There is no need for an infantry man or stinger missile operator in the civilian work force," he says, "but men in these positions know more about accountability than just about anyone short of a doctor." Jeff points out that while most job applications have a section for military service, they "offer a pathetically small space to describe your skills and training. This leaves employers with only a fraction of the information necessary to decide whether to make a call back or not."

Luckily, help is out there for job seekers on a web site called Military.com, created to help military consumers with issues like career transition, financial planning and relocation. The year-old site's career section features a MOS decoder that lets users translate their MOS codes into civilian titles and learn more about civilian job requirements, hiring processes and salaries.

With no web sites to turn to during her job search two years ago, the frustrated Kalas tapped search firms for assistance. One recruiter helped her rewrite her resume and explain her experience in civilian terms. "After a couple of interviews," she says, "I felt more confident and was able to get past the confused looks."

Kalas also suggests using the transition assistance offered by the military. "I opted not to use it because didn't feel I needed it," she says, "and I really regret my decision." Today, she is a corporate recruiter in Chicago, and sometimes gets the chance to help fellow veterans. "I have interviewed candidates that were in similar situations, and luckily I was able to give a little advice and help them make the most of the interviewing process."

Image problems
Once you make it past the resume screening, the real fun begins. Military-to-civilian career changers all over the country wrote to Vault.com to say that their biggest obstacle was selling themselves to employers who saw them as "a bunch of robots," with "limited vision" who are "inherently lazy" and "only respond to direction from above." Former Air Force engineer 'Shawn K.' reports that companies are often apprehensive because they think that "we are not cost-conscious, and hence, not profit-oriented."

With 23 years of experience in military intelligence, and a stint developing, implementing and managing an adjunct faculty program for 85 military linguists, Jay Kalbrener was shocked at the way he was treated when he began his civilian job search. "I was asked by an HR professional if I seriously thought any of my skills were transferable to civilian life."

And when Fred Wellman left the army less than a year ago, he says the negative perception was evident even among people who had previously served in the military. "I find myself constantly having to prove that we are not right wing automatons but fast-thinking, flexible people." One interviewer even expressed worry that Wellman was used to having a clerk type his documents, and would not be able to do so himself. "I said I don't know if you've heard, but we have computers on every desk, and I do my own typing!"

Some military professionals also find that their education is questioned. "My degree from the USAF Academy is difficult to ratchet against a typical four-year college," observes Mike Stratton, who has been out in the civilian workforce for more than three years. However, he notes, "those employers who dig deeper into the Academy experience will find that we go through a rigorous academic program where everyone is required to take core classes [including engineering (aero, astro, thermo), chemistry, liberal arts, law, philosophy, management and economics] in addition to classes for their major." Stratton also points to the leadership skills learned in the military, "which could only benefit an organization."

Put your skills on the table
As Kalbrener puts it, "In the military, you know what people do by their rank and branch of service. It's more foggy in the civilian world." And since civilian employers are not always familiar with military lingo, it's up to the job seeker to prove that their underlying skill-sets are the same as those required in the business world.

When recruiters questioned the value of his military experience, Dino Mourtos learned how to sell himself civilian-style. "I actually had a major [recruiting firm] tell me to 'get one job under my belt and then come see us'!" Mourtos says. Eventually he "used some networking skills, got a few interviewers, and blew away the interviewers with my [industry] knowledge and experience." Which wasn't hard - he had 20 years of experience in the Army Medical Service Corps as a Health Services Administrator. Mourtos says he also "went to great pains in the interviews to use practical examples to convince them that I had worked in the 'future!'" He managed to destroy the "MASH image" and show his interviewers that the military health services administration was actually "20 years ahead of industry."

Mourtos landed a position, though he ended up accepting a lower salary than was appropriate for his experience. Some employers simply assume that veterans receiving retirement income will accept less money. Junior officers with less experience than Mourtos or Kalbrener also find that, because companies don't understand what they bring to the table, they are repeatedly offered jobs for which they are overqualified. When Chris Ford left the Army as a Captain with over four years of active duty service, he was treated as though he were a new college graduate. In his last position in the Army, his level of responsibility was "roughly equal to that of my boss' boss" in his first civilian job.

Once veterans prove themselves, however, and learn how to maneuver their way through the corporate world, promotions generally follow.

They certainly did for Steve. In the four years since he left the Air Force, he's moved up from Project Manager to Director, and then to Assistant VP at a large financial company. "In a small way, they were right," he remarks. "The real world is different." As he's moved up the corporate ladder he has bypassed several managers who had put in over 10 years at his firm. "Maybe they should have taken up marching."

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