Selling Your Military Experience to a Civilian Workforce

If you are a veteran transitioning into the civilian job market, hiring managers will inevitably ask you about your military experience. Considering less than 10 percent of the U.S. adult population has ever served in the military, the chances are high that you will be connecting with plenty who do not know much about the military, and this can make it difficult to “sell” your previous military experience.  

To help with this, UMUC Career Services recently offered a webinar about transitioning from the military into civilian employment. During the webinar, U.S. Army veteran Ish Escobar who, after serving eight years as an infantryman (including two combat tours in Iraq), successfully transitioned to a career with Northrop Grumman where he has served for the past ten years in various security positions. Today he is the Program Lead for Operation IMPACT, Northrop Grumman’s outreach and recruitment program for Wounded Warriors. With Operation IMPACT, Escobar regularly provides career training and transition advice to wounded servicemen and women and throughout the webinar he shared a variety of great tips from both his personal experience and the many others whom he has helped.

This webinar focused on selling your military experience when writing your resume, during an interview, and while networking. Additionally, Escobar shared his unique perspective about these three topics while also addressing some tougher issues. For example, how to describe your work experience if much of it was classified or confidential, how to discuss combat-related experience in an interview, and how to approach the job search if you have a service-related disability.

Do you need a resume? Absolutely! As Escobar stated, “A resume allows you to introduce yourself to a company. It also allows you to communicate. More importantly, it’s extremely efficient because it demonstrates your qualifications in a concise format.” He stressed the importance of not developing a one-size-fits-all resume, but to take the time to customize it to a specific opportunity. Yes, it will take time to do this, but it is worth it. 

He also advised that job seekers put any information that is required for the job on the top of your resume. This may include information like a security clearance or certifications, which many veterans tend to place toward the bottom of the resume, but this makes it much harder for the hiring manager to see. Instead, place your security clearance directly underneath your name and contact information.  Additionally, create a separate section for your industry certifications that are relevant to your target position on the first page as well to make this more prominent.

A challenge many veterans face is how to write about their experience in their resume if much of it was classified or confidential. Escobar advised to have your resume reviewed by your facility security officer to verify that the information you are including is not classified information. You can also ask their advice about how to discuss this experience without revealing any classified information. It is also completely fine to say, “I can’t tell you too much because a lot of this is classified, but what I can tell you is…” The hiring manager may not work with classified information, but they will likely respect the fact that you are abiding by the rules that you must follow to protect the information that you know.

When discussing interview advice, Escobar emphasized how much military terminology you include in your interview responses depends on the job you are interviewing for. If you served as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operator and you are interviewing for a UAV Technician Supervisor position, then chances are you can use the acronym UAV and others that are related to what you did as a UAV operator.

Be careful, though. As Escobar said, “Assume that the person will have no idea what you’re talking about if you start throwing acronyms like AO, SOP, PFCS, or if you start using military jargon such as combat patrol, squadron, battalion, etc. etc.” He also acknowledged that different branches of the military use different terminology. “When I talk to Navy folks, and they start throwing their jargon, I get lost pretty quickly.”

When much of your job in the military involved combat-related experience, it can also be challenging to discuss this in an interview situation. In most situations, bringing it up may be irrelevant and unnecessary. Keep in mind, though, that combat-related experience can often showcase some extremely valuable transferable skills. For instance, in response to a question like “How do you handle pressure,” Escobar has responded:

“I have eight years of military leadership experience. I led a group of nine men in direct combat situations where we were being engaged by enemy forces. In many of those instances, I needed to make quick life or death decisions, which I handled with the utmost responsibility as a leader. If the Army ever taught me anything, it was the ability to think and react under extreme pressure and situations. I truly believe I can handle any stressful situation that I’d encounter in this job.”’

The details behind his combat experience was not needed, but this answer provides an effective response to the question.  

Escobar acknowledged that he only recently began to appreciate the importance of networking since he has moved into more of a human resources focused role with Operation IMPACT. He now understands the value first-hand as he acknowledged that more than 50 percent of candidates hired by Northrop Grumman were referred by current Northrop Grumman employees.  

His advice is to establish a human connection whenever possible, so that you have a specific person (or people) to whom you can reach out if you are interested in a job opportunity. You can directly connect with a recruiter or an employer by attending a career fair to talk with a recruiter or use sites like LinkedIn. You can also see if the company that interests you is offering any workshops or open houses, which can get you into that company and interacting with the employer face-to-face. Another piece of advice: connect with veteran organizations such as Hiring Our Heroes and Wounded Warrior Project, as they regularly interact with employers and may be able to refer you to an employer interested in hiring veterans with your background.  

To close, Escobar shared some advice for how to conduct a job search if you have a disability. Every day, he works with transitioning service members and veterans who are entering the job market with a variety of disabilities. He advised to first know your limitations. Ask yourself if you can do the functions that are required for the job. For example, if the job requires that you have to be able to lift 50 pounds, and you cannot, then do not apply for the job. He acknowledged, “It may be difficult to hear this, but it’s a reality.”

If you are able to do all of the tasks that are required for the job, don’t bring up your disability. Keep in mind that the employer legally cannot ask you if you are disabled, so they should not be bringing it up either. The only time it may need to be mentioned is if you plan to request some sort of workplace accommodation such as if you need some equipment like a special chair, noise canceling headphones, etc. In this case, there’s no need to discuss this until you are in the final stages of the interview process.  

There are many additional resources that address each of these topics in greater detail. For more advice on transitioning from the military or the job search in general, visit CareerQuest. To speak with UMUC’s Office of Career Services, please call 240-684-2720 or email Thank you for your service to our country, and good luck with your transition!

Kristin Schrader is the associate director of InternPLUS and military career programs at University of Maryland University College. She has a background in human resources and has worked in career services at four universities. Most recently, she was the lead trainer in Europe for the Department of Labor Employment Workshop teaching transitioning U.S. servicemembers about the civilian job search. She is very passionate about helping others obtain their professional goals.