Ever thought your military experience made you the perfect candidate for a job, only to apply and get nothing but radio silence on the other end?
Trust me, you’re not the first veteran to go through that, and you won’t be the last.
Here are some tips to help you make it through the job-search process without losing your mind, courtesy of five veterans who have been there.
1. Don’t rest on your military experience.
By the time Josh Horneck was 22, he had traveled the world, deployed to a combat zone, learned how to make decisions in life-altering situations and established friendships that will last a lifetime — all thanks to the military.
“All of this uniquely prepared me to be successful in any career I chose,” said Horneck, a former public affairs specialist in the Army Reserves and Michigan National Guard.
But those and other experiences don’t neatly translate into a bulleted list on a resume, he said, and he found that most employers, even those claiming to be military friendly, didn’t understand them anyway.
“The biggest help for me was to stop convincing myself that ‘U.S. Army - 8 years’ was going to land me a mid-level management job at a Fortune 500” company, he said.
Nathan Hilt, who served from 1996 to 2000, said he was told by recruiters and college professors to list only his service dates on his resume — but nothing more unless it directly correlated to a specific job he was interested in. In his case, that wasn’t much, since he was looking for a career more related to his microbiology degree than his Marine Corps infantry experience.
He said he’d advise other veterans to do the same, and strip things like military accolades from their resumes altogether.
“[You’re] not applying to the military, and those won’t mean as much as you think they do,” he said.
And another thing?
“Stop cussing and tone down your bravado. You might think being a shit-talking badass with confirmed kills is the pinnacle of the world, but it’s not, and most of the world doesn’t want that,” Hilt said.
2. Treat job searching like a full-time job.
Tailoring your resume and writing a cover letter for each job you’re interested in takes time.
“Finding a job is a full-time job,” said Army veteran Maureen Elias. “Treat it as such. Set aside dedicated time for the work it takes — writing thank you notes, searching online, making calls, and networking. Keep a spreadsheet of contacts and follow up.”
Go to job fairs and do your research, she added. Be ready to give recruiters your resume and elevator pitch, and prepare for possible interviews.
“Enlist the aid of a mentor or multiple mentors,” she said. “I call mine my personal board of advisors. They can help you realize what you want to do, prepare you for the journey and support you as you begin the work.”
3. Start early.
“Start planning a year out,” said Bridget Altenburg, a former Army captain who runs the Chicago-based nonprofit National Able Network that helps veterans and others find employment.
You don’t need to have everything nailed down before you get out, she said, but start figuring out where you’re going to live, what school you might attend and what jobs or industries you’re interested in. She recommends using resources, such as the Labor Department’s My Next Move website, to help you figure out what you want to do next.
4. Start networking ... yesterday.
“I’d advise those that are still in the military to make as many connections as possible,” Horneck said.
“Do it before you are unemployed. Develop a career passion and do everything you can to get your foot in the door — be it education, face-to-face meetings with people already in the field, online communities, friend-of-a-friend's-dad's-cousin interactions, etc.”
After Horneck separated from the military in 2015, it took nearly two years for him to find a civilian job that matched his skills. He now works at a Denver-based consulting firm supporting crisis response and emergency preparedness training, a position he got based on a referral from an Army friend, he said. She, too, had joined the company based on a referral from another employee.
“Had I not kept up with a connection I never imagined would give me a career, I may still be on the job hunt,” he said.
Most jobs are gotten this way — through networking versus blindly applying for jobs, Altenburg said.
“There’s a hidden job search that’s hard to tap into if you just wait to apply for job postings,” she said. “Figure out where you want to work, see who you know, and ask them to connect you to a decision maker.”
Altenburg said the best time to start making connections is yesterday.
“Whenever you meet someone professionally, connect to them on LinkedIn and via email,” she said. “Keep a list of who you know by location and industry so you can ask them to help you network. Join alumni and interest groups, and don’t be shy about asking for help.”
5. Take time for yourself — and others.
“Here is what I would tell someone who is getting out of the service: Take a proactive break,” said Alberto Lopez, a Marine Corps veteran who separated in 2007.
This means taking time to “recover” from service, but in a way that will benefit you in the future, he said. For some, this could mean physically relaxing. For him, it meant volunteering.
“Volunteering allowed me to regroup from my service while researching and developing a plan for my future,” he said.
And it also looked good on a resume, filling in gaps that may have otherwise been red flags and demonstrating a passion for serving others, he said. Now, Lopez is the founder of Phenix Legacy, a nonprofit organization in Illinois that serves members of the military community and first responders.
Elias said it’s also important to remember to take time for self-care during the job searching process.
“Being told no is hard on the self-esteem,” she said.
6. Don’t give up.
As you search for a job, remember that many a resume you send will go into oblivion, and you’ll never receive a response.
“For every military transition poster child, there are 1,000 empty inboxes, waiting for even a rejection email,” Horneck said.
For 95 percent of the jobs he applied for, Horneck heard nothing.
Hilt had a similar experience. He applied to hundreds of jobs and never heard back.
“Do not ever give up,” he said. “You might not get that job you wanted or an interview may have went dreadful. Regroup, adjust and try again.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.