By Judy Marston

Imagine you’re in your 40s and have never competed for a job, written a resume or had a behavioural interview. This is the reality for the vast majority of retiring or transitioning Canadian military regular force members. (Reserves members, in comparison, are often more likely to have held civilian jobs during their CF tenure.) It’s almost as if they have just finished high school and are starting out on their own – except they have 20 to 35 years of work experience, much of which can sound like a foreign language to the civilian employers they are hoping will hire them.

Back in late 2001, when I became the Canadian Forces’ first civilian Second Career Assistance Network (SCAN) Co-ordinator – or in plain language, Career Transition Coach – I quickly realized this was a good analogy for most retiring military members. For the next eight-and-a-half years, learning how to craft effective marketing tools for these folks to help them make the successful leap to “Civie Street”, as they call it, was a very challenging and enjoyable experience. Now, I continue to work with this group on a private client basis since taking my own leap, two-and-a-half years ago, into my full-time career coaching business.

You might be surprised to discover, as I was, that the vast majority of Canadian Forces members have never had a say in their job assignment and therefore are often not sure what they like to do or what they have a talent for. Every two or three years, new jobs are assigned to them, often in tandem with a physical transfer to a new base. Their job titles can range from obscure to fairly civilian-friendly, but there is often an added challenge to consider – many want a change in employer and a change in career paths, which adds another layer of complexity to working with them and determining which key transferrable skills to showcase. Here are a few of the key areas of awareness career counsellors and coaches might benefit from when working with these clients.

Resume conception and execution

Resume development. Many military transitioners struggle with writing a resume. When you ask them about their accomplishments you often get a “deer in the headlights” response. I have adapted a hybrid (read: expanded) version of the standard problem/action/results statement to better describe their activities and add context for civilian hiring managers.
I also coach them on how to use their stories in the interview, because the interview process is another daunting task for most military members, many of whom last had a job interview when they were in their teens.

Me vs. us thinking. Separating personal contributions from those of the team requires a shift in perspective. Getting this idea across can be aided by helping the member think like an employer. The military member should be encouraged to think about how they, as an individual, can contribute to the business as a whole.

One of the things I realized is that a military job is probably the most secure job in Canada. Very few members get terminated so they are understandably apprehensive about what they perceive as the insecurity of civilian jobs. Few will accept a term or contract position, and yet, these can be valuable stepping stones toward permanent positions. With global economic concerns, temporary positions are often the way an employer tests a new employee to decide whether to take them on full time.

Resume length. Since most military occupations have odd names with few obvious connections to civilian occupations (e.g., weapon-, hull- or ammunition technicians; logistics and MARS officers), the difficult task of breaking down the transferrable qualities and skills can take some time. I almost always use functional or combination resume formats which are often longer than two pages because I need to explain the military job so the civilian employer can see the connections to their job requirements.

The military teaches a lot of great skills but they rarely have an equivalent civilian certification or designation, which also requires explanation or expansion on the resume. This lack of clearly recognizable credentials often leaves military clients feeling at a loss. A list of key courses in a table can show civilian employers the similarities between military skills and what they might be seeking.

The leadership debate. Most of my military clients think leadership is a skill. I personally consider it a quality that can look different from one person to another. Unfortunately, I often have to divest them of this simple concept and encourage them to demonstrate this trait in concrete terms and by using examples. Civilian employers may sometimes have a bias against the military, equating leadership with giving orders. I often take some time to unpack my clients’ actual experiences to help them understand the difference between civilian and military leadership styles.

In the military, knowing someone’s rank imparts an instant awareness of that person’s duties and responsibilities. It is nice shorthand for those in the military, but does not translate well into the resume. It is also difficult to convey to military clients that ranks will not mean anything to most civilian employers. Military members almost need a crash course in civilian workplace protocols but that might be a lot for them to take in during a stressful time.

Testimonials. I learned early on about PERs or members’ annual personnel evaluations. Even though they can be full of incomprehensible acronyms (a military trend), I often use excerpts from them at the end of a resume or create a full page for the military client to take with them to the interview. The PERs are a lot like accomplishment statements and can give guidance as to what to highlight on the resume.

Institutionalized thinking

Talk to most military members who are leaving the military, and you will hear about the strange atmosphere that starts to build as they draw closer to their release. Their military colleagues take a step back. I have heard this story from so many clients I don’t think I’m exaggerating how often it occurs. The confusion and distress can be palpable in the clients I have worked with; it helps to explain to them underlying psychology so they begin to see it is not about them, but rather a natural human response to anticipated loss.

The military is, by its very nature, adept at creating a sense of separation between their employees and the civilian world. In fact, they take care of their members in an almost institutionalized way – when it’s time to move, the members do not even have to pack their own belongings; in fact, they’re not allowed to! As in their jobs, personal choice is in many ways deliberately removed. So, it is no wonder that, when the time comes for retirement or release – especially for the pensioners who have served over 20 years – uncertainty as to how to proceed is almost a given.

This also results in a variety of feelings, including fear and mistrust. When one of their own is about to leave the fold, colleagues mirror that fear and unconsciously begin to push the departing member away. I have had many clients express a sense of abandonment by the military because their support is instantly gone the minute they finish their “out routine” and hand in their ID. Even though they are more than welcome to visit anytime they want, many feel an invisible wall has been raised between them and their old place of employment. For many of the less self-reliant, this often results in a sense of deep loss and bewilderment.

So, there can be many emotionally-charged reactions going on in long-term military members as they forge a new life and career on Civie Street. They require a gentle ear and kind hand to guide them forward. Patience is also key in deciphering and translating the many fascinating and foreign-sounding experiences they’ve had into understandable and relatable language that will be met with interest by a potential civilian employer.


Judy Marston is a self-professed Career ReInventioneer! She loves nothing better than to dissect the jigsaw pieces of a client’s life/work experience and reinvent them into a new strategic and engaging career trajectory. With almost 15 years in the HR/recruiting/career development field, her next goal is to launch her online coaching series designed specifically for the Myers-Briggs intuitive feeler types in early 2013. Visit her website at