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Keys to Unlock the Code for Government-to-Industry Transitions

By Steve Stromp
Career consultant and writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; 3:57 PM

As government downsizes and privatizes, military and civilian personnel continue to explore transitioning opportunities into private industry and accordingly experience frustrations on where they best fit and how they should navigate the move. They immediately discover companies have few openings for administrators, test pilots, budget officers, squadron commanders or policy and procedure specialists. They likewise sense nobody really wants to hire someone in transition – leaving one career field or industry for another.

Any career shift presents challenges – government-to-industry considered among the most formidable with changing cultures and changing paradigms the critical issues. But it can be accomplished with success by those who execute the move with strategies in hand and who avoid creating adversity for themselves by overplaying their baggage. It’s advisable to portray skills and experience carefully because what sizzles in public service may fizzle in business circles.


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Transitioning requires applying three key strategies:

Strategy #1: Stress your transferable skills, not the venue where they were developed.

That an applicant served in the State Department or the Pentagon is interesting, but employers prefer to know what skills the person offers. The information must be clearly conveyed in both the resume and the interview if people expect to restart their careers “on the other side of the fence.”

Strategy #2: Convey value to employers.

Hiring managers must be able to understand what government candidates did and what value they bring to the business organization. Government work is compatible with private industry. The challenge, however, is packaging it comprehensively in a manner that will interest business managers and create the passport for passage.

Strategy #3: Give employers reasons to hire you, not reasons to reject you.

Military and civil service transplants seeking positions with business and industry subliminally give employers reasons not to hire them by directing attention toward their changing situation and away from valuable skills they offer. A retiring military NCO or officer may open letters to employers stating: “I’m concluding a military career in several months and looking to transition into the civilian marketplace.” A government civilian perhaps writes: “I am in the process of retiring from government service and exploring opportunities in the private sector.” The less you mention the career shift, the more you facilitate the process. Employers are interested in the “what,” not the “why.” Business managers can deduce from the resume that you’re transitioning; they needn’t be reminded.

Importantly, finding jobs in today’s economy entails writing a resume that speaks the language of employers and camouflages the colloquial differences, not the contrary. For government workers looking to cross the line into business careers, writing a resume that can compete with professionals in the private sector requires breaking the language barrier and translating job titles, acronyms and other bureaucratic references into code employers can understand. A frequent gaffe is emphasizing arcane skills, experiences and institutional references, a practice that frustrates business managers. These indiscretions are manifested in what can be described as the “Seven Deadly Sins of a Government Employee’s Resume.”

Titles. Supervisors and managers in certain government agencies hold such titles “chief,” “commander” and “staff officer.” In private industry, these same people are referred to as supervisors and managers. Commercialize the resume by translating such titles as Chief of Training to Training Manager.

Skills. Companies want to hire individuals who can perform and deliver results. Sadly, employers at times overlook qualified people in transition because the candidates send the wrong message. Having a secret clearance and managing highly classified information will not excite most business people unless the company is a government contractor; however, the ability to lead projects and deliver results on time and under budget will.

Experience. Public and private sector organizations in numerous ways employ similar operating styles, making certain elements of experience gained in either setting interchangeable. This is demonstrated by the numbers who leave Corporate America for government jobs and by the public employees who continue careers in private enterprise. Writing a business-focused resume requires that you highlight the government experience applicable to the corporate world - and forget the rest! Business managers are interested in what you can do for them, not everything you did.

Organizations. The government classifies departments according to branches, sections and units to denote their level in the organization’s hierarchy. Businesses are structured differently. On the resume, you can hide the organizational pedagogy by changing Chief of Unit A, Chemicals Section, Purchasing Branch to Chemical Purchasing Manager.

Functions. Acquisition, logistics, policy and procedures, weapon systems management are terms mostly peculiar to government activities. Again, apply the business spin and recast these terms into purchasing, material management, administration, equipment management or other business-oriented labels.

Acronyms. Agencies are especially heavy into the alphabet game which is why government personnel must be especially careful when communicating with the public. “NCOIC” (Non-commissioned officer-in-charge), GS-12 (General Schedule), “SES” (Senior Executive Service) are household expressions inside the Beltway but confusing to business managers outside the zone. Either eliminate the references or find a suitable substitute because over-indulgence will quickly lower the interest of employers.

Awards. The government recognizes its people extensively, but listing awards on a resume loses impact unless they’re significant. Resist the temptation to pepper your resume with trivial tributes. Only mention exceptional awards that reinforce your skills and experience or relate to the position you’re seeking. Listing awards per se leaves a hollow effect. If it’s important enough to mention, build the accolade into an achievement. Focus on why you received the honor and convert the experience into a professional asset.

As a Corporate America wannabe, you want to put the government culture behind and assume a business perspective. Certainly if you intend to work in private industry, think and dress as corporate people do. Hint: The traditional military digital watch is a dead giveaway!

Steve Stromp is a career consultant, lecturer and independent writer who has developed job-hunting concepts, strategies and solutions and shared his ideas on effective careering with thousands of successful executive, managerial, technical, governmental and academic professionals. His writings have appeared in the metro press as well as trade journals. Contact Steve Stromp: sstromp@MSN.com.


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