When Army Capt. Carolina Gonzalez-Prats left the service in 2004, she was proud of the work she had done as a supply and logistics officer. "I was really pumped up in terms of all the experience I had, the amount of responsibility I had been given," she said.
But before she could land a new job, she needed to translate that experience for prospective employers. She had managed materials, organized people, moved supplies along very poor roads — would recruiters get it?
It's a problem that plagues many veterans as they transition into civilian life, especially when they try to capture their career in a few carefully chosen words on a nice piece of paper.
Writing a good military résumé goes beyond clearing out jargon and spelling out acronyms, experts say. Even more important than making sure a hiring manager understands what you did is making sure you understand what the company does — so you can draw the line between your experience and the job as clearly as possible.
Start with the employer
Before you can translate your experience, you have to know what language you're translating to. Experts recommend starting with the employer and working backward from there so your résumé is grounded in an understanding of the target industry and the needs of the company.
"You start by researching the industry where you want to connect and work. You learn the trends, you learn who the top players are," said Tony Palmer, a former Navy pilot, now a principal with recruiting firm Stanton Chase International.
"This will allow you to learn the language that applies to the industry that you are looking to join," he said. If a job-seeker can express his military experience in the specific terms of that target industry, "It is going to be more forceful. It really helps with impact."
Learning the industry vernacular is a first step. Drilling down a level further, the language of a résumé should align with the specific language of the target company. You can find hints on the company website, the mission statement and marketing materials.
"The easiest way is to go to the position description for the job that you are seeking," Palmer said. "The employers will essentially give you the language, the terminology of the skill sets and experiences they are looking for. Then you use that same language to give it back."
Gonzalez-Prats did this in a brief "Experience Summary" that included concepts such as personnel management, customer service and independent action. "Before employers even got to the skills, I wanted them to see more of the essence of what I had done," she said.
To find the right words, ask yourself probing questions as you scan company materials, said Brian Henry, vice president of operations with Orion International, a recruiting firm specializing in military transitions. "You want to ask: ‘What do they do? What are the roles in that company where I can have a chance to translate my skills?' It's about drawing a parallel between what this employer needs and what you have done in the military."
What if the parallel is less than obvious? How do you take military-specific experience and qualifications and convert them into civilian-speak?
Marine Capt. Lane Mandel went through this process when he left the service in August 2008. After two deployments as an infantry officer, he worked with an adviser training group, preparing Marines to deploy with local police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the surface, it's a far cry from his present work in the management program of waste management company Republic Services Inc. To win that job, he sought coaching from the management recruiters at Stratus Consulting Group, who helped him overcome what he considered a significant résumé hurdle.
"I came from a specialty in the military that was not easily transferable to civilian work. There is not really a good equivalent to the infantry in the private sector," he said.
Knowing that titles wouldn't do him much good, Mandel started looking at "soft skills" — moments of accomplishment that showed the managerial abilities employers would want to see.
"I found the word ‘leader' and I started to think about situations where I was a leader. Then I started building detail around that idea," he said. "I thought about how many people I had led and then I put a solid number around that. ... You need to paint them a picture."
He knew that the management track called for organizational skills, so he looked over his career for concrete examples.
He had been responsible for a command operations center, where he tracked mobile units, monitored communications and tracked supplies in the lines. He put it down in numbers: "I would monitor maybe three different units of 40 Marines each, all doing separate tasks. I would think about successful missions that I went on when I deployed a company of 200 Marines," he said.
By sticking to the specifics, Mandel was able to paint a picture that went beyond the military jargon.
Specific accomplishments help an employer understand a candidate's "soft skills," but to round out the scene, a military résumé has to show tangible outcomes. Companies don't want to see just leadership; they want to see leadership that nails down a specific end product, whether that's cost savings, enhanced productivity or any deliverable that boosts the bottom line.
Too often, veterans will leave out this critical information, Palmer said. "They end up saying, ‘I got the job done' or ‘We achieved the objective.' People will talk about their activities but not about the results."
One strategy: Catalog a set of anecdotes before you start drafting the résumé. Come up with three to five stories that give a definite picture of the outcomes your work has achieved.
Mandel knew this would be an issue for employers who were looking for financial management experience on his résumé, so he tried to address the question up front.
"People assume that as somebody in the military, you don't have a lot of exposure to money, and unless you are in a specifically financial job, you probably don't really deal with the cost of things," he said. "But there are still things you can say."
Mandel hit upon a formula to show that he had, in fact, managed money. "You can convey the amount of responsibility you had for expensive things. So I would estimate the value of the equipment I was responsible for managing, even though my actual job didn't have me counting dollars," he said. A few million dollars worth of tanks or helicopters looks pretty impressive on paper. "That way at least you can show that you understand what that amount of money looks like."
Something for everyone
Mandel's reckoning of Marines led, equipment managed and supplies tracked are all good résumé fodder. Not all experiences will apply to every employer, however.
If translating a résumé means learning to speak the employer's language, you should come to realize that every employer has a different take on what is relevant. That's why you need a portfolio of at least five résumés, each tailored for the needs of a different sort of employer, Henry said.
Five may seem daunting, but there will be overlap. Before setting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, take a thorough inventory of your skills and accomplishments. With a single master list to work from, it will be easier to plug in the relevant bits for any given industry or employer, often keeping the critical language the same.
All this supposes you've shed the arcane military lingo. In order to be sure that a résumé is readable in the most basic sense, "Pass your résumé draft by three nonmilitary people and have them circle the things they don't understand," Palmer advised.
At the end of the day, not everything you've done is going to come across on paper to a civilian hiring manager. Recruiters say the best résumé is still only a teaser.
As a field consultant for 7-Eleven, Gonzalez-Prats helps franchisees tap into the company's corporate wisdom and resources. Her military experiences prepared her for the job, but they didn't always translate on paper. For instance, Airborne School was "something that really shaped me as a leader, but people would just look at it like, ‘Oh, that's pretty cool,' and then move on," she said.
Sometimes it takes a face-to-face moment to convey the depth of one's experience in uniform.
"The résumé is only half of it. You need to be able to be in an interview, to say, quick-boom, who you are and what you did," she said. "But getting the résumé right, getting really clear about what your skill set is, that helps you to do it when the time comes."