What to Do: First Months of a Veteran Job Search

Staff Sgt. Samuel LaCorte of Indianapolis, Ind. the Indiana Joint Force Headquarters, Headquarters detachment studies his computer screen during the training portion of Cyber Shield 2019 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 8, 2019. (National Guard photo/William Phelps)
Staff Sgt. Samuel LaCorte of the Indiana Joint Force Headquarters, Headquarters detachment, studies his computer screen during the training portion of Cyber Shield 2019 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 8, 2019. (William Phelps/U.S. National Guard photo)

When you entered military service, you knew a day would come when you would face a civilian job search. Or perhaps you imagined retiring after your military duties and living off your retirement, but now you are separating from service and need to get a job. 

When facing a job search, the first months are critical to starting your new career most effectively.

For any job seeker facing unemployment, feelings of frustration, disappointment, fear, anger, relief and anxiety can become an overwhelming swirl of emotions, often making the first months of the search unproductive. For military veterans, we must add a multitude of cultural differences to the mix, making the transition feel terrifying.

As soon as you are on the other side of your military job, here are some steps to find your next employment:

Month 1

Your new job, as of Day 1, is to find your next job. While the adjustment to being the civilian work world is fresh, you need to capture your thoughts and create your value proposition. This will be your defining tool in landing a job and building a career. From this day forward, you should be focused on the job search from the time you wake up to the time you prepare for dinner; your focus is on what you will do to get reemployed.

Spend your first month dedicated to these activities:

1. Introspection and Personal Branding

Personal branding is the key to articulating your value proposition to a potential employer clearly. While in the military, this was less important. On the civilian side, it is crucial. Employers hire people they find compelling and relevant. Your job is to make it easy for the hiring manager to see how, where and why you fit into their organization.

This means you have to understand:

  1. What makes me unique? What do I have to offer that sets me apart?
  2. How do I want others to perceive me? Do I want to be seen as a leader or a team player?
  3. When am I most authentic? What kind of work makes me feel most "like me"?
  4. What kind of people do I work best with? While in the military, did I work best in informal settings, or was I attracted to structure and rules? Do I like working outside or in an office? Do I like working in highly collaborative teams, or will I work best independently?
  5. What am I passionate about? Do I enjoy advocating for world issues? Politics? Education and hunger? Or am I more intrigued by complex financial issues or teaching children new skills?

2. Inventory of Your Tools

a) Do you have personal business cards? 

This is a "Day 1 of unemployment" task! Get cards printed with your name, email, cell phone and perhaps a description of what you can offer. For example, "Ben Smith, USMC (Ret.), Dedicated IT Network Administrator" or "Susan Jones, USN (Ret.) Writer Who Turns Ideas into Narrative." Be careful putting too much military jargon on your cards, unless you are pursuing a job in a military-friendly industry or company.

b) Do you have the wardrobe for a job search? 

Will you be applying for jobs where you need a suit? Are you looking for work in a new city where you might need a new wardrobe? Always polish your shoes, tailor ill-fitting interview clothes and dust off your leather portfolio. You need to make a good impression from the first minute you meet your new contacts.

c) Does your resume need to be updated? 

Aside from adding your military experiences and accomplishments, be sure your resume sounds like you and reflects your values and passion. Remember, hiring managers are hiring for the person as much as for the skills and expertise. Instead of just "demilitarizing" your resume, speak to the civilian hiring manager in their language and help them see who you are as a person, not just an applicant.

d) Do you have the computer/software tools to research and contact the companies you are going to approach successfully? 

Make sure you have access to a wireless connection (at a library or local coffee shop) so you don't miss an important email.

e) Do you have a network of contacts? 

Start small and grow the list of people you know -- people you served with, knew before you joined the military, civilians you met during your service, and the men and women you served alongside. Organize their names, contact information and notes.

3. Networking

I hear from many veterans that the idea of networking -- asking others to help you, letting them know you need help -- feels uncomfortable. It's as if you're exposing vulnerability and now you're beholden to them.

The reality of civilian work life is that networking is how we get into great situations and how opportunities find us. As uncomfortable as it may feel, it will need to be a real part of your transition.

  • Decide who you need to know and how you will meet them
  • Identify the groups or associations you should join (in your community or industry).
  • Consider who you know who can help in your job search. How will you reach out to them to know you are in a search -- in person? By phone or email? On LinkedIn?
  • Are there meetings, gatherings, conferences or meetups in your area that you can and should attend to meet other people?
  • Do you have an answer for the "What do you do?" question? If not, start developing a response.
  • Plan your follow-up. How will you keep in contact and engage in a long-term networking relationship with the people you will meet?

4. Research

Looking at the companies and their needs you identified in Step 1 (who do you want to work for), begin researching all you can about them, including:

  • What are their company priorities?
  • Are there aspects of their company or industry for which you have unique insights?
  • Do their company values align with the values of the military (where you are well-versed)?
  • Is the company growing and expanding?
  • What type of employees do they hire?
  • Are they hiring right now?
  • Do they identify that they want to hire veterans and former military?
  • Do you know anyone who works there? Are there veterans who work there to whom you could reach out and get more information?

5. Build Your Online Profile

Online platforms offering you a profile or posting should be your most important job-search tools. Recruiters, hiring managers and people who can help you are online. The people you need to know, and who need to know (and find) you, are often just a keystroke away.

With a clear sense of your value proposition and what you're looking for (refer to Step 1, again), focus on the following in Month 1:

  • Updating your profiles with a current and professional-looking headshot (if you are fully retired or separated, replace your military photo with a business professional headshot).
  • Add information about your successes and accomplishments during service. Focus on quantifiable results and keywords designed toward your next job. While many veterans feel this could be portrayed as "disloyal" (taking credit for experiences when you are not the only one involved), keep in mind that a hiring manager is hiring one person, not a unit or platoon.
  • Revise your profiles to reflect your passions, goals and value proposition for life after the military.
  • Add any credentials, education or volunteer activity you've earned.
  • Start to slowly ask for recommendations on your last job. You will get more assertive about this next month, but start asking now.

Month 2

During Month 1, you gathered information, learned and became visible to your community and industry. Now it's time to amplify your efforts by using the insights and research you learned.

This month, you are focused on:

1. Building out your online presence and social networks.

Take a more visible position online. Look at all the networks where your target audience (recruiters, hiring managers, people who could refer you and influencers) participates. For some of you, this may mean building a presence on Twitter or maybe posting some creative videos highlighting your talents on YouTube. For others, perhaps forming a strong presence and following on Pinterest or Instagram will get the attention of the product-focused businesses you are trying to connect with.

Also consider a mini-website or blog. Both can be done relatively easily by using a platform such as WordPress, where the look and feel is relatively user-friendly. This can serve to illustrate your skills and experience, and it can house your resume, writings and offer to your next employer.

2. Refine your resume.

Draft, revise and have your resume reviewed again. Be sure this document reflects your style and personality, is concise and interesting, can be customized to the jobs you will apply for, and is completely (yes, completely!) free of typos or grammar mistakes. Did I mention there should be no typos? List only those acronyms and military terms that will be understood by hiring managers, or could be easily decoded.

This document is a reflection of your personality, passion, care and interest in the position and company that will receive it. Care for your resume as if it were a Super Bowl ad; make sure it is perfect. Have it reviewed by many people who know you and know what you are looking for.

3. Take your networking to the next level.

For all those contacts you started meeting in Month 1, now you will become more intentional about connecting with them, offering to meet and discuss opportunities, learn about their industry and figure out how and with whom you will build more long-term, win-win, networking relationships.

Perhaps join a committee in one of the networking groups you joined. You might even join a leads group or program specifically designed for job seekers. Your goal is to be out in the community, not sitting at home, so you can be visible and top of mind with your target audiences.

4. Contact the companies you researched.

Now that you have completed the due diligence on the companies you'd like to work for and you've identified your inroads (i.e., people you know who work there -- hopefully some veterans), create your cover letters and pitch schedule. Consider whether to contact the hiring manager first on LinkedIn or whether a letter by regular mail might be more effective.

Customize your cover letter and resume for each position for which you are applying. Draw a straight line between what they are hiring for and what you have experience doing and are passionate about doing again. Make the civilian hiring manager's job as easy as possible.

Months 3+

If your job search continues, you are likely dealing with mounting feelings of frustration and anxiety. The job-search process is never the same for two people, let alone two veterans. Your peers may have had a great job offer by the end of the first week of unemployment, and you are facing three+ months of uncertainty. Your situation could all change tomorrow, with one phone call, so rest assured: If you are working the search correctly, you are doing everything possible to make yourself findable, and evaluating the opportunities you receive.

Keep your momentum going by focusing on:

  • Social networking
  • In-person networking
  • Contributing to the online conversation
  • Getting out into the community
  • Helping other veterans in their search
  • Continuing your research
  • Letting people know what you have to offer
  • Refining and polishing your resume
  • Sending letters and emails to your target audience
  • Taking care of yourself

Try to keep your spirits high. Spend time with friends and family, take your dog for walks in the park or help a neighbor rake their leaves. By staying connected to the things in your life that matter to you, you can keep your game sharp in a job search.

Your personal brand is your filter, it is your criteria and assessment tool for the types of opportunities you seek, and where you will do your best work. When veteran job seekers don't focus on understanding and building their brand, they tend to accept the first job that comes along, or they try to mold themselves into an ideal candidate for any job they see, and in both cases, they are giving away their power and control.

Find the Right Veteran Job

Whether you want to polish your resume, find veteran job fairs in your area or connect with employers looking to hire veterans, Military.com can help. Sign up for a free Military.com membership to have job postings, guides and advice, and more delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues