Six Skills That Simplify Career Change

Changing career paths is incredibly stressful. You’ve spent years cultivating skills valued by your employer and climbing the promotion ladder by demonstrating competency. When you switch employers in the same field, those skills are valued. In fact, if you are judged to have superior skills, you may be actively recruited and in many cases offered significant salary increases to move. But by switching to a different career path, your network and skills can become meaningless. Suddenly, you are no more valuable that an entry-level employee. In fact, in some cases, you may be judged inferior to an entry-level employee, if your work experience and compensation history is greater than what is required for that position. This is because the employer may have concerns that if hired, you’ll leave the minute a better opportunity becomes available.

In short, career path changes often result in “skill perception” gaps. Probably nowhere is there a larger skill perception gap than in the switch between a military and civilian career. In this blog post, we’ll focus on that specific career change. Note that skill perception gaps typically aren’t an issue when a member of the military moves to a government service position or a government contractor position closely aligned with the person’s military specialty. However, in a budget-challenged world, those positions aren’t as widely available.

So, what is the best way to maximize competitiveness for any job? Here are six key steps that can help bullet-proof your career:

  •          Stay active in professional/industry associations,
  •          Commit to lifelong learning,
  •          Keep an up-to-date resume,
  •          Develop a career roadmap,
  •          Become a storyteller and
  •          Continually identify improvement opportunities.

Stay Active in Professional/Industry Associations

Networks matter. The difference between being one on a stack of 100 resumes and one of the five people who is actually invited to interview can be as simple as asking someone who knows you to call on your behalf a hiring or personnel manager whom that person also knows. Professional and industry associations relevant to the skills base you’ve developed often provide the networking opportunities needed to grow your connections and find out more about potential opportunities.

Veterans’ organizations and the Small Business Association (SBA) may also have support options; these may be targeted at helping veterans either find jobs or start businesses and may include job fairs, networking meetings, educational events and free business start-up assistance.

Commit to Lifelong Learning

One of the advantages of starting adulthood in the military is the educational benefits. Using those benefits to pursue a degree or take classes that broaden your skills base will increase your competitiveness. Most military bases have either onsite or online community college and university linkages with classes held in the evening or on demand. Many universities also now offer certificate or degree programs almost entirely online.

There are also free or near-free options that require minimal time. For example, I’m using courses scheduled through the Coursera platform ( to refresh my finance and accounting knowledge as well as increase my knowledge of music theory. Courses are five weeks long and take 2-3 hours a week of my time. If I want a certificate, I pay a fee, but if I just want to take the course, it is completely free. Universities from all over the world participate, and even if your skill set is “complete,” learning something new enhances your ability to do your job as new technologies or skills requirements come along.

Keep an Up-to-date Resume

This is perhaps the best piece of advice. A resume is your calling card for new opportunities. If changing careers is likely, the skills section should be as generic as possible, and skills should be augmented with results wherever possible. For example, a resume that simply indicates supply chain management or logistics experience or training will not be as strong as one that shows competency by indicating that results included a cost reduction of several million dollars achieved by streamlining a process or identifying better sourcing options.

Updating a resume on a regular basis helps ensure that superior results or relevant training programs are noted. Also, consider your social media profile. Linkedin is regularly used as both an online resume and social networking tool. That said, follow any warnings or advice given in military security briefings as far as how much information is shared online since extremists also have access to social media.

Develop a Career Roadmap

Building a career in civilian life is very similar to building one in the military. The big difference is that while the military explains the promotion system and the need to “punch” certain “tickets” through assignments or training to continue being promoted, civilian employers typically don’t make career paths that explicit. In short, in civilian life you must become the master of figuring out what promotion path you want and what tickets you are going to have to punch to get there.

From a civilian career planning standpoint, there are two good paths. One option is to focus on a specific job function such as retail management, supply chain management, or program management and acquire skills and training necessary to be promoted to increasingly higher levels within that functional discipline. The other option is to become an expert in a specific industry and move through progressively higher levels of executive responsibility, either at a single employer or by moving among competitors. While the first option focuses on a functional specialization strategy, the second focuses on industry specialization combined with general management and leadership competencies. Both strategies pull from skills developed in the military. Try to look at least five years ahead in terms of what skills and network you’ll likely need.

Become a Storyteller

Veterans and their families understand that military service involves significant training, including excellent leadership and team building training. It also develops excellent critical thinking and stress management skills. Even a relatively short military career also broadens perspectives in terms of one’s understanding of cultural diversity and managing change. Time management, focus on the mission and strong self-discipline are also hallmarks of military service.

However, people who aren’t familiar with military service don’t understand the depth and breadth of the education that comes with that career choice. Therefore, it becomes important to find ways to illustrate how the training and experience you’ve received in the military translates to value in the job for which you are being interviewed. Discussing situations where you’ve built bridges with counterparts in other cultures or how you’ve helped turn subordinates into productive team members helps to illustrate how easily transferable your skills are. Even a description of how you start your day is likely to more impressive than that of the average job candidate.

Hiring managers are looking for employees who can carry their weight and ultimately make them look good. Storytelling should be designed to illustrate how hiring you can achieve those goals. Research the company and the position ahead of time, and think about the stories that would likely make sense. Having a mental inventory of potential skills/results stories that can be told as questions are asked will make the interview go more smoothly. Consider doing some mock interviews with friends familiar with the types of questions likely to be asked to improve your storytelling skills.

Continually Identify Improvement Opportunities

The best path to permanent unemployment is to begin believing you have all the answers.  There are always opportunities to improve skills. Positioning yourself as someone who thrives on constructive criticism and is always eager to learn new things will open the door to more opportunities. Try to find mentors within any company where you work who can help you learn more about the skills needed to move to the next level.

Building the career you want is rarely luck. It is usually a combination of preparation and timing. Having the right skills and network ensures that as opportunities open up, you are one of the first considered.