Write a good resume. Go to job fairs. Network. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before, right?
Well did you know how interviewing is like poker? How Google and Facebook can be critical aides – or, in some cases, obstacles – to landing that great civilian job after you transition out of the military?
We asked veteran employment experts to share some job search advice that you might not have already heard more times than you can count. Representatives from the Department of Labor, the American Legion, Hire Our Heroes and Veterans of Foreign Wars weighed in.
Here’s what they told us.
Know what you’re good at – and where you could improve
“There are employers out there looking for people like you, so do not hide your talents,” Anthony Lowe, VFW associate director for economic opportunity and transition policy, said in an email. “The majority (of service members) are humble creatures, so it’s often uncomfortable to repeat those same glowing words in your evaluation. This is totally opposite in the civilian workforce, so get accustomed to it.”
Dan Caporale, founder of Hire Our Heroes, said veterans should come up with a personal brand and be able to sell themselves to a company in a way that rises above the competition.
“Don’t just put together a resume. Think about why you’re better than the next guy” for the specific company you want to work for, whether it be Coca-Cola, Budweiser or Starbucks, he said.
Joe Plenzler, director of media relations for American Legion, put it this way: “Figure out where your superpowers and life goals intersect. It helps to list out the things you are good at, and then get down to three things you are great at.”
Next, he recommends figuring out what your long-term goals are and whittling down that list to three top goals.
“You should search for your post-military Career 2.0 where those superpowers and goals overlap,” he said in an email.
Job searching is also a good time for soul searching. In addition to your strengths, you should be able to identify your weaknesses, Lowe said.
“Be humble and ready to correct them. Build a plan to remedy those shortcomings, and if it means getting additional mentoring, training, certification and education to reach your goals, then develop your plan and execute,” he said.
Manage your expectations
Whether you’re an E-3 who just separated or an O-9 retiree, you’ll have to go into your job search keeping your expectations in check, Lowe said.
“We’ve all been told that we’re great at what we do, but don’t allow that to build in exceedingly high expectations about your next job,” he said. “If you are a squad-leader with limited civilian education, but have been battlefield tested and proven to be able to lead, there are employers that want you. But don’t think you’re walking into a six-figure salary with a corner office.”
This is also true for job fairs. Caporale has interacted with many discouraged veterans who expected to go to a job fair, hand out their resume and get a job shortly after. But instead, they’ve spent months watching their resumes disappear into the abyss. It is enough to make some vets start doubting their self-worth.
He suggests using your next job fair as an opportunity to network and learn what companies are looking for, instead of going into it assuming that you’ll come away with a new job.
Check your Facebook feed. Then check it again
The stupid things you did in your wilder days may have been funny at the time – but if there are videos or pictures of your drunken stupors online, they could come back to bite you when you’re looking for a job.
“Recruiters will … look at your social media sites to make sure that you are a good fit for their organizations, so try to keep (your) social media clean,” said Ariel De Jesus, assistant director of American Legion’s National Veterans Employment and Education division. This includes Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, he said.
Lowe said your social media presence, in addition to materials like your resume and business cards, can help your job search go smoothly. And you can also use it to your advantage, as some of your virtual friends and followers may be able to help make the right connections.
You landed the interview? Great. Now make sure you don’t go in blind.
De Jesus said job seekers should always research a company before applying – and definitely before an interview. This includes looking up the company’s mission statement, CEO and history.
You should also research the person with whom you’ll be interviewing, keeping your eyes peeled for similarities that could help break the ice.
“People naturally gravitate towards similarities because they quickly begin to close the distance between two strangers and make people feel more safe,” Plenzler said. “Interviewing is a lot like poker in that many times it is more about figuring out the person across the table than the value of the cards in your hand.”
Take advantage of preferential treatment (You earned it!)
Your time in service comes with benefits.
For example, government contractors are required to hire a certain number of veterans, and a lot of companies have veteran hiring initiatives with certain goals to meet, said De Jesus. Last year, under President Trump’s HIRE Vets Act, the Labor Department began a new Medallion Award program aimed at recognizing employers who recruit, hire and retain military veterans.
Former service members also get priority at 2,400 American Job Centers across the U.S. for things like resume help, access to training, interview prep and more, according to the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, or VETS.
On the other hand, don’t overplay your military service, Plenzler cautioned.
“Sure, the military has distinct cultural characteristics and offers unique life experiences, like war, but it doesn’t have the monopoly on leadership or teamwork,” he said. “Avoid presuming that these don’t exist in the civilian world as you could unintentionally offend the people you are interviewing with. Be confident, but never cocky.”
Network, network, network
OK, so you probably have heard this a million times. But our experts feel it bears repeating.
“Attend as many networking events as possible,” De Jesus said. “Experts say that 70 to 80 percent of people ended up in their current position thanks to networking, while only 25 percent are done the traditional way.”
He suggests talking to everyone at a job a fair; you may even be surprised at what’s out there.
This is another one that you may have heard before, but we just couldn’t leave it out.
If you’re getting ready to separate from the military, you likely already know about TAP, the military’s Transition Assistance Program. According to a Defense Department spokeswoman, retiring service members may start TAP two years before retiring, and separating service members can go 12 months before they get out.
VETS, the Labor Department group, recommends service members start the process as early as they can and take advantage of its optional tracks, including a new one the Labor Department will roll out this summer. Career Exploration and Planning will assess participants’ interests, aptitudes and values, recommending potential careers and training opportunities based on the results.
“Early planning for the transition to civilian life can make a huge difference for a veteran,” Mika Cross, VETS strategic communications adviser, wrote in a recent blog post. “The earlier veterans familiarize themselves with the kinds of training, skills and certifications that are most needed in the civilian labor market, the better they are prepared to map their career and educational goals.”
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.