5 tips for transitioning from a military to civilian career

Nearly half of veterans who find work after the military end up leaving their first civilian job within 12 months

5 tips for transitioning from a military to civilian career

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joel Luera, Air Forces Central Command personnel readiness superintendent, speaks with a real estate representative during a job fair at the Carolina Skies Club, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., April 17, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jensen Stidham/Released)

By SrA Andrew McCarty
RallyPoint

Every veteran has an opinion about military recruiters. A common narrative is that they tend to stretch the truth when making their sales pitch. I once saw a wall covered in letters from servicemembers to their recruiters; some of them were downright hilarious. One disgruntled recruit bemoaned the fact he was being forced to run during basic training. “You told me I’d have the option to ride a bicycle,” he wrote. I couldn’t help but laugh. I’m sure his drill instructors did, too.

Prospective recruits are often told that after military service they’ll never have trouble finding a job. The fact is, though, that isn’t a given. Perhaps it should be, but the reality is that many veterans struggle to find “their place” after they separate. Nearly half of those who do find work end up leaving their first civilian job within 12 months.

This tells me two things: First, transitioning into a civilian career isn’t as easy as we were told it would be. Second, veterans might not be thinking about their transition in the right way. Here are some tips for making the transition a more successful experience.

1. Military occupation vs. vocation

I’ve spoken with enough veterans to know that there’s a common misconception affecting a lot of us. The military assigned you a job when you enlisted. You spent weeks, months, or maybe years becoming proficient at that job; it’s what you know how to do. But that doesn’t mean it’s your calling.

Ask yourself what you enjoy doing. What are your strengths? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sleeping, and I think I’m right up there with the best, but that doesn’t mean I can make a career out of taking a nap. I do know I’m creative. I enjoy writing, innovating, coming up with new ideas and programs. When I’m searching for a job, I want to know if there’s going to be room for me to use these strengths. If there isn’t, I’m certain I won’t be happy there.

2. Know before you go

Every mission or deployment involves planning. I still research our destinations before my family and I go on vacation. If it’s outside the U.S., I’ll review the State Department and CIA location assessments. We’re trained to think things through before we do them. Why should your career transition be any different?

When you’ve narrowed your career interests to certain fields or industries, test your ideas. Are there areas of the country or world where those industries are thriving? Are you open to moving, or set on a particular location?

If you know where you plan to live, perform a job market assessment. Are there many positions available in that area? What is the standard pay rate? What education and experience are required for job candidates? If you don’t have those credentials, how do you go about obtaining them? Do you need a degree, or would a certain certificate or license suffice? If additional education is required, do you have veteran education benefits that can help cover the cost?

When researching schools, be sure to speak with the individual who processes benefits, such as the GI Bill or VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment. How knowledgeable is that person, and can he or she recommend alternative funding methods if your benefits won’t cover the full cost of the program?

Finally, be realistic about the salary you’re looking for. If you expect a six-figure income, you’ll need to make a strong case to the hiring manager regarding how you plan to bring in at least six-figures worth of revenue into the company. They’ll also be looking to see if you have the education and experience that warrants that salary.

3. Networks make your dreams work

You’ve probably been told that networking is important. It is, and not something you only do while on the job hunt. Never stop networking. Your network is a safety net, as well as a launch pad. Businesses close. Companies go bankrupt. Positions get eliminated. These are terrible experiences to go through when you, and possibly your family, depend on that income. Worse still, these things can happen without any warning. If a situation like that occurs, you’ll want a strong network that can help you land on your feet.

Networking is also a way to “pay it forward.” I have connections in industries I’d never plan to enter. Through them, I’m occasionally able to help a veteran find employment. Through my network in the veteran community, I’m sometimes able to help companies find the veteran talent they’re looking for. Networking isn’t always about you and your next opportunity. Sometimes it’s about helping someone else find theirs. You scratch their backs, and perhaps one day they’ll scratch yours.

If you are looking for a new career opportunity and you’ve identified an organization you’d like to work for, see if you can identify veteran employees who already work there. I’ve found that veterans like helping other veterans. They might not be able to get you a job, but they can offer valuable insight. They may even be able to mention your name to the hiring manager. Also, research whether or not the company has a veteran hiring initiative. If that’s a pathway they’ve created, by all means use it.

4. Create a strong resumé

Invest time and effort into your resumé; this isn’t the place to cut corners. You can’t assume you’ll have a chance to expand on things during an interview, because if your resumé is weak, you may never get invited to one.

There are a number of online skills translators for servicemembers. Some are good; some are bad. Have a civilian who isn’t familiar with the military review your resumé. Are they confused by any of the language you used? Respect the honest feedback you receive and make the necessary changes.

5. Life after the job offer

Congratulations! You did it. You landed a job. Now what?

How is the veteran culture in the organization? Is there one? Does the company have a veteran employee resource group (ERG)? If not, consider starting one. This could be a way for you to continue serving others. And don’t let the door close behind you. Offer to help your human resources department evaluate other veteran candidates. Make yourself accessible to the next veteran who’s interested in working there.

There’s no perfect set of instructions for making a seamless transition from military to civilian life. Luckily, there is also no shortage of organizations and efforts dedicated to helping veterans through the process. From free workshops to veteran-specific networking events, I urge you to avail yourself of the opportunities in your community. The more engaged you are in the process and the stronger your network, the easier it will be to land on your feet and hit the ground running. Good luck!


About the author
Andy McCarty is director of Northeastern's Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers (CAVS). McCarty is a post-9/11 era veteran of the United States Air Force, with deployments to Egypt and Qatar. He is also a graduate of Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies.