How to Craft Your Resume to Move from Military Work to Civilian Employment

By Laura DeCarlo

Transitioning from the military into a civilian role can be an extremely daunting experience. Make your resume work for you. You suddenly find yourself going from a very structured world into one of unstructured chaos where it seems “anything goes.” But, when it comes to the resume, that’s not the case.

If you’re trading military life for your first civilian gig, be sure to sign up for the federal government’s invaluable Transition Assistance Program (TAP).

Highlighting your military strengths

Having recently transitioned from the military, you have five key selling points:

  • You’re highly disciplined and understand the chain of command.

  • You’re a hard worker who understands a day’s work for a day’s pay.

  • You are likely well traveled and have gained cultural experience.

  • You understand teamwork as well as being accountable.

  • You likely held new positions in new geographies on a regular basis, causing you to develop a variety of diverse and transferable skillsets.

Identifying potential strikes against you

Your key weaknesses can easily be overcome. They include:

  • You likely speak and write using jargon, titles, and acronyms that may be unfamiliar and intimidating to employers.

  • Your confidence and discipline may come across as arrogance, superiority, or inflexibility.

  • You may lack knowledge of how corporations operate.

  • You may fall into a common misperception held by some employers that you need constant structure and guidance to function.

  • Corporate America believes you operated without concern of budgets.

Get the message about milspeak

Bill Gaul, a former military officer and placement specialist, popular media commentator, and acknowledged expert on the military transitioning job market, answers questions about demilitarizing your resume.

Q: Can you give an example of what you call milspeak?

A: An Army officer’s resume read: “As commanding officer of a 500-person organization, I was responsible for the health, morale, and welfare of all personnel.” Health, morale, and welfare? Just think of the incredible range of skills and experience in that milspeak phrase. Far-reaching accomplishments and important responsibilities are whitewashed into boilerplate terms that mean nothing to a civilian hiring manager.

For example, “health, morale, and welfare,” could easily be translated into “policy development, human resource management, budget planning and administration, process improvement, operations management, and staff development.”

Q: What’s the deal with job titles?

A: Some military job titles are ambiguous, some misleading. For example, a Navy fire control technician does not put out fires but operates and maintains electronic weapons targeting systems.

Translate your job title without misleading the employer:

  • Mess cook (food service specialist)

  • Fire control technician (electronic weapons systems technician)

  • Motor pool specialist (automotive maintenance technician)

  • Provost marshal (law enforcement officer)

  • Quartermaster (supply clerk)

  • Base commander (mayor of a small city)

When you need a tool to help you translate military job titles to their civilian counterparts, find the Military Occupational Classification Crosswalk at the O*NET Resource Center, a free Department of Labor website.

Q: What can you do in situations where your specific work experience doesn’t closely relate to the job you’re applying for?

A: You can communicate your organizational position instead of your job title. An E-5 Marine Corps embassy guard applying for a management position in the security industry listed his job title as “facility supervisor.” He added the details of his experience within the body of his resume. This drew readers because it represented more of a fit than someone who kept people in proper lines applying for visas.

Q: Aren’t most military members in combat-related jobs?

A: Yes, and that can be a problem, trying to relate the job you’ve had to the job you want. For the straight combat MOS (military occupational specialty), there are several options.

List your relative position in an organization — “unit supervisor” instead of “platoon sergeant” as your title. Your work in collateral duties may be the key.

The dates listed must accurately reflect the time you spent in the specific collateral duties, of course. As you know, it is often the case that you will have more than one collateral duty while performing a key role for an organization.

Q: How should you list your level of authority?

A: Omit references to rank or grade like “NCO,” “petty officer,” and “sergeant.” Unless an employer has military experience, these terms won’t communicate your relative position within an organization. Instead, list civilianized equivalents appropriate to your level of authority:

  • Safety Warrant Officer OSHA (coordinator)

  • Training NCO (training supervisor)

  • Barracks sergeant (property manager)

Q: What about education and training?

A: Many courses and schools leave recruiters wondering exactly what you trained for because the course titles can be esoteric and arcane. The rule is this: List your training in a way that will provide immediately apparent support for your job objective.

If the name of a school or course doesn’t communicate exactly what you were able to do after the course that you couldn’t do before, show that value because you are trying to inform, not mystify. You are trying to demilitarize the language to help resume reviewers understand the nature of your military training. Some examples:

  • SNAP II Maintenance School (Honeywell Computer Server Maintenance School)

  • NALCOMIS Training (Automated Maintenance and Material Control System Training)

  • Mess Management School (Food Service Management School)

  • NCO Leadership Training (Leadership and Management Training)

Q: Is that all there is to civilianizing a military background?

A: Not quite. To help resume reviewers understand the depth of your training, list the number of classroom hours you studied. To determine the number of hours, multiply the number of course days by 8, or the number of weeks by 40. If you completed the course within the past 10 years, list the completion date. If the course is older, leave off the date. Here are two examples:

Leadership and Management Training (160 hours) Organizational Development (120 hours)