My Transition from the Military to Civilian Workforce

While searching for a volunteer opportunity with a non-profit organization a couple of months ago, I ran across a post from an organization dedicated to helping veterans that was looking for veterans who might be interested in writing a blog or article on their service. For me, having spent much of the last year preparing to leave the Army, it was an opportunity to share some of the lessons I learned with other transitioning veterans. Though my experience was by no means unique, I hoped my perspective and the lessons I learned along the way might be interesting and somewhat useful to those starting the process. To my amazement, they agreed.

I joined the Army after graduating from college, enlisting to get the benefits of the G.I. Bill in order to continue my studies and pursue a Master’s degree. Early on, I was offered a chance to go to Officer Candidate School. I jumped at the opportunity and ended up serving for another twenty-three years. The four deployments, an overseas tour, command of a battalion, a stint in the Pentagon, and more moves than I care to count made the time go by quickly. Of the twenty-four, the last year was by far the fastest.

A little over a year ago, I decided to leave the Army and start again somewhere new. While I was not sure where, two decades working in operations teaches you to plan ahead and not to panic in the face of the unknown. I had an entire year to prepare for my transition. A year can be a long time when you are used to working on projects that needed to happen yesterday. While I planned for the worst, I began to take the necessary steps to ensure my future success.

Like most transitioning service members, I began by signing up for the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), a program designed to assist in the service member’s return to civilian life. It offered a variety of workshops to assist with things like creating a resume and understanding your benefits once you leave the service. The time I spent here was helpful since it served as an introduction to the topics I had paid little attention until my last year - Veteran’s benefits, healthcare after retirement, and others. Looking at my upcoming year, I scheduled out these courses as far ahead as the TAP schedule would allow in order to coordinate my transition activities with the requirements of my job. Fortunately, my command worked with me on this and rarely was there a conflict. It helped that both they and I realized the clock to my departure was ticking, which meant that someone would have to replace me at some point. By starting early and keeping my command in the loop, I would be there to walk my replacement through my projects and transition them in an orderly fashion.

During my year in transition, I learned a few lessons worth sharing. The first - start early. As I began the process, one thing I heard over and over was “you need to start two years out” - a goal I suspect few service member’s actually achieve. Like most people, we tend to focus on our current career, and treat a departure from the service as a distant possibility. Even though it was not a snap decision, until I actually began writing my retirement memo, I had not started down the path to retirement. Over the last year, I have turned that piece of advice into a talking point anytime someone brought up my retirement. It doesn’t mean you have to starting looking for a job, but there are things to consider and the farther out you begin looking into your departure the better off you will be.

There are other things to begin considering as well - such as certification and licensing for certain businesses, or application deadlines if you are planning to go back to school. With the exception of medical and some technical fields, the military generally doesn’t require professional certifications. Over the years, I managed numerous projects for the Army, yet I never held a certificate in project management. I quickly learned that most civilian employers value certifications. In many cases, having the right certification is essential for getting your resume reviewed. Getting a jump on earning your civilian certifications will help down the line. The same holds true for my second lesson - the importance of networking early.

As I transitioned, one thing I noticed about my network was how “green” it was. I knew a lot of people, but nearly all of them were connected to the service in some way. This is not bad if you plan to go back to work for the Department of Defense. However, if you are looking for something beyond the military, you will need to offset all the “green” relationships with new ones which takes time. You will need to find a way of making meaningful contacts in both the industry and the area where you plan to settle. If, like me, you are not much of a networker, it can be tough, but it is worth the effort. Recently, I read an article by a fellow transitioning veteran who reported 100% success in landing follow-ups with companies where he had at least some network established and 0% for those where he did not. While my own experience has not been as extreme, it is pretty close.

I will admit to my fair share of networking failures, my network is still pretty “green”, but I treat every event, social gathering, or lunch as an opportunity to expand my network. I heard and read the varying opinions on the value of career fairs - are they useful or just a waste of time? I opted for the value added position on career fairs. I started to use career fairs as research opportunities on companies of which I was interested. If I was really interested in the company, it would become an opportunity to network with someone, usually a human resources representative. There were some cases where I found it hard to get to meet someone in the company who would give you a moment of their time. A career fair can be that jumping off point. I also used the fairs as a chance to practice my “elevator pitch”. There were a lot of companies I had never heard of and I found that they were there to listen if only for a moment. Each encounter gave me a chance to conduct a self-critique of my pitch. Was I too hurried? Did I keep it brief, but get my points across? Did I spark their interest? Plus, you never know where the next opportunity might spring from and, if nothing else, you meet some interesting people along the way. Although, in today’s digital world, you should expect to leverage technology to help you in the transition.

Unless you plan to go off the grid, you will probably consider starting (or updating) a LinkedIn profile. I started actively using my profile on LinkedIn shortly after I decided to leave the service. Why so late? Like a lot of people I knew, I already had a profile - no picture, no real information - as a place holder for when I planned to leave the service, but until a year ago I rarely used it. Once I started to use the account, I found out a few things. First, LinkedIn offers a year of free premium membership for veterans, which is great. Free and useful is a good thing. The process is a little tedious but worth the extra time it takes to get your account activated. As I began, I read a lot about personal branding and what your profile should look like. While opinions vary, I decided to treat LinkedIn like a digital calling card - a professional statement of who I am. No photos of me at the beach since I am not looking to open a surf shop or posts about how much I like paintball as I have no intention of selling paintball supplies. There are other platforms for those things. LinkedIn is my calling card to the corporate world, not my friends and family.

Second, LinkedIn allowed me to easily reach out to friends and acquaintances in my network. I now had a tool that allowed me to see where others in my network might be able to assist me with opportunities and where I might be able to assist them. Early on I opted to limit my connections to people I knew or had been introduced to rather than simply accepting connection requests from strangers. It probably makes me seem old fashioned, but I find this allows me to achieve better connections and help others make connections within my network. However, there are many who recommend quantity over quality. For them, it is about maximizing the number of possible connections. For me, it came down to the idea that I wanted to provide value to the people in my network and not just add to someone’s total number of connections. If you chose to use LinkedIn, at some point, you will have to make your own decision on the subject. You will have to make a similar decision about the style of your resume where, like your connections, opinions vary.

My third lesson was that everyone has an opinion about resumes. Style - Functional or chronological? Font - aerial or calbri? Length - One page or two? Once again there is no right answer, but there are tools to help. First, I started bouncing drafts of my resume off some of the guys in my office who were considering their own departures from the service. They had spent time considering the topic themselves, so it was a good place to get some honest feedback. Next, consider joining one of the one of the many corporate-veteran mentor programs to work with a civilian mentor on your transition. After many discussions with peers, I decided to seek assistance from a veteran mentor program, American Corporate Partners. I knew there were a lot of gaps in my information about life in the corporate world, and I needed to gather intelligence to fill those gaps. My civilian mentor helped me to better understand the corporate world and filled in the gaps. Plus, having someone who has made hiring decisions in the corporate world look over my resume and provide feedback was extremely helpful. It made up for my lack of experience is this area. There are other routes, such as finding an agency to look over your resume or write it for you. While many will charge you for the service, there are a few, like Operation MCP (Make Careers Possible), who will help a veteran work on a resume for free. If you have never put a resume together before, they can assist you in translating your military skills into something a civilian employer will better understand. In the end, your resume will get better, but it will still need to be tailored to the position you want to apply for, so be prepared to make changes.

The final lesson I learned during my transition was patience. As you start the process of seeking a position outside the military, you will find all the years dealing with “hurry up and wait” situations are going to come in handy as you look for the right position. Even if you have some connection to the company or organization for which you are applying, it can still take weeks (or months) before they actually bring you onto the team. I expect you will find the process can be longer if you decide, as I did, to look for work in areas outside your military skill set.

In my experience, the best companies keep you in the loop throughout the process, even when they decide not to hire you. Though I have found this tends to be the exception, rather than the rule. Be prepared to have your resume disappear into a black hole while you are kept in the dark about where it stands. Most companies will simply thank you for your interest and will only get back to you if they decide to move you along in the process. Some will not even do that. In today’s technologically driven process where you apply online and your resume is screened by a computer program, what does it say about an organization that does not have the time to send an automated e-mail thanking you for applying? As a firm believer in first impressions, I use it as an indicator of what to expect from the company down the line. Here is where your network comes in to assist you in avoiding the black hole.

Having a link to the organization can assist in keeping tabs on your status within the process, even if you do not get hired. Often they can recommend you to the human resources staff or the hiring official directly using processes internal to the company. In addition many companies, as well as federal agencies, have personnel dedicated to recruiting veterans, who can be extremely useful in figuring out where you stand. You will meet many of them at career fairs or can reach out to them online for an introduction. However, do not think they are going to get you the job, that’s not what they are there for. They are, however, one more avenue to help you land the position you want and can be a good entry point into the company as you start your search. Remember my earlier example, you are far more likely to get an interview at a company with whom you have a network established than with one you do not. So keep networking and be patient. You have the talent and skills companies are looking for, but finding the right job will mostly likely not happen overnight.

Like any military operation, a good plan is critical to a successful transition. There are resources and organizations whose purpose is to help veterans plan and execute their transition, and I encourage you to take advantage of them. At the same time, build your network. Treat every career fair, meeting, and e-mail as an opportunity to expand your network to help you land the position you want. Expect that there will be bumps in the road and be prepared to make changes to both your resume and your plan. Finally, be patient. While your success in getting the job you want involves a process that you do not control, you can influence it. But it will require patience (a lot of patience) on your part. Good luck.