Ten Steps to a Smooth Transition
Leaving the military may be one of the most difficult tasks you ever undertake, whether you have served for one year or thirty. I served for seven years, and I have been back in the civilian world for seven years. I've since worked as a career counselor for veterans and other military personnel, where I have acquired knowledge about how to make the most of your transition into the civilian workforce. Here are some recommendations that I would like to pass along to you.
1. Address all medical concerns.
Before you transition out, identify and attend to all of your medical and dental needs. Go to your healthcare providers and discuss all problem areas – and I mean all – that you experienced while in the military. These could be problems with sleeping, digestive functions, aches and pains, or even anxiety or other mental health issues.
This is important because these problems will likely persist. Discussing the issues with a medical provider while you are still in the service can benefit you later if you need to receive medical attention through a VA hospital or any other facility operated by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), a part of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As long as you transition with an honorable discharge or a discharge that does not disqualify you from medical treatment, you can potentially receive healthcare services through the VA.
2. Build a financial cushion.
Ensure that you budget in a way that will leave you in an advantageous financial situation. Separating from the military is very stressful. You leave your friends, guaranteed income, free medical and dental care, and a culture that you have become accustomed. Avoid adding financial stress to the list.
If possible, pay off all credit cards and save six months to a year’s worth of projected expenses for your transition.
A good fact to keep in mind: Men and women who transition out generally qualify for unemployment compensation through their state governments. Check with your state’s unemployment system.
3. Create a budget.
Determine how your civilian life will look. Some of you are in a position to retire for good. But many of you will start another career.
I encourage those preparing for the civilian workforce to do some career research. When you entered the military, you took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the Aviation Standard Test Battery (ASTB-E), or the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) to determine your suitability for various military careers. On the civilian side, the more popular career-assessment tests are Myers Briggs; CareerScope, which both the VA and The Department of Labor use; and the Strong Interest Inventory. You can take many career-assessment tests online for free, while others require a nominal fee.
Aside from knowing what job you want, it is important to determine the amount of income you would need to support the lifestyle you want.
4. Understand your GI Bill benefits.
Once you know which career path is best for you, you might discover that you need certification or further education to even be considered for the job. If this is the case, make sure the school to which you apply is accredited, and ensure that the students of that school have a history of getting jobs in the fields they study. To learn more about your potential benefits, go to the GI Bill website.
5. Conduct research.
If you plan to join the civilian workforce, create a resume that speaks to the job that you want. If you do not have a specific job in mind, identify multiple career fields that interest you, then write a different resume for each.
In listing your military experiences and skills, remember to include activities that were not in your “main line of work.” For example, in the military, you were generally identified first by rank or rate. After that, you had a specialty, MOS, or rating. If your rating was missile technician, your main goal was to ensure that your command’s missile systems were up to par and that you were trained to operate them. However, during your years as a missile technician, you may have been detailed to other units – you may have also learned to be a firefighter, for example, or worked in supply, food service, or construction. Also consider rank. A missile technician who is a private has different duties than those of a staff sergeant.
Remember that most civilians do not know that there are varying responsibilities within a given military occupation. As you write your resume, it is your responsibility to make civilians understand.
Before you write a resume that speaks to the job you want, you will need a fairly detailed job description. A great place to start is the O*NET Resource Center. At this site, you can type in a specific job field that interests you, and the site will provide a list of duties that a person in that position normally handles on a regular basis.
I used ONET in my own job search. I wanted to go into human resources after leaving the military, though I never had much experience in that field. When I looked on ONET, I found that HR duties include onboarding, writing evaluations, and training. I had military experience in these areas, and I wrote my resume to reflect that fact.
If you are looking for a position in management or as a supervisor, I suggest that you change your job title or add parentheses next to your job title and write in terms that are more recognizable to civilians. For instance, if I supervised junior personnel as a missile technician, I would write missile technician and then (supervisor).
After you have developed your resumes, read through job postings that interest you. Determine what the companies are actually looking for. If you see that an employer is asking for a specific skill that you have not mentioned in your resume, edit the resume to include that skill. If you do not have that skill, find out whether there is a way you can obtain it through additional education, job shadowing, or volunteering.
You might be surprised by the power of the people in your network. When I separated out of the military, I wanted to work in human services, customer service, or human resources. I identified ten companies that would be of interest to me, and then I reached out to family, friends, and associates. I asked them whether they had any information on how I could get a position in the companies of interest.
Start with friends and family, then use social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. You can use LinkedIn to identify veteran groups in your local area, look up companies of interest, and find HR representatives, hiring managers, and associates at those companies. Continue to be specific about the career you are seeking so that others can best direct you. But at the same time, be open to new career opportunities.
I recommend asking your contacts something like, “I am interested in working as a [name of occupation] at XYZ Company. By chance, do you know anyone who works there, or have any advice on how I could get into that company or position?” Put that question out there and see what takes root.
Another option is attending an organization's open house. This is a recent trend that allows companies to meet potential candidates on-site. These open houses give you the chance to tour the facility, talk with recruiters, and even meet other employees who already work there. If you have an opportunity to attend one of these events, I recommend going.
Other good places for a veteran to network: VA hospitals, Vet Centers, CareerOneStop centers, career centers on base, job fairs, and veteran groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The U.S. Department of Labor sponsors CareerOneStop centers, and the states administer them. The centers may have different names from state to state, but all of them exist to connect job seekers to careers. They can also help develop your resume and assist you with your interview skills. Most of them have a veteran representative who can speak with you about job opportunities in the community.
When at a VA hospital, Vet Center, College Counseling Center, or Careeronestop center, ask around for counselors who can tell you more about potential job opportunities within your local community. A conversation with these counselors may not be your holy grail, but they can certainly share nuggets of information that will be beneficial in your search for a new career.
Job fairs can be an excellent learning opportunity. They are often a mixed bag and you may or may not find a company that is in line with your career goals. I recommend that you do some research before attending. See which companies are attending, and then go to the different companies’ websites to learn more about them. At the event, if you do not know about a particular company in attendance, do not hesitate to ask the company’s recruiters what the company does and what types of people they are interested in hiring.
When I attended job fairs, I always made a point of really connecting with recruiters – as opposed to just chatting with them – and following up after the event through e-mail or a phone call.
Many companies will refer you to their websites, and they may not offer an opportunity at that moment. But do not be discouraged. If you have built rapport with a recruiter, feel free to send him or her a request to connect on LinkedIn. If you have established rapport and you apply online for a job with his or her company, tell this recruiter that you completed an application. This strategy could help you make it to the next steps in the hiring process.
7. Learn how to interview effectively.
Before showing up for an interview, do as much research as possible. Review the employer’s website so that you can explain how the company’s mission aligns with your own.
What questions will the interviewer ask? That need not be a complete mystery. You can research common interview questions online.
The interviewer will almost certainly ask questions about things you have done in the past that show you can handle stress and resolve problems. Different interviewers will ask this in different ways – but those are the underlying questions.
To prepare for such questions, compose four to five very short stories about your accomplishments. A good starting point for your stories: Letters of commendation and recommendation you received while in the military. Go over the stories in your mind a few times so you can incorporate them smoothly into your answers. Interviewers will actually enjoy hearing concise stories that show how you will be an asset to their organizations.
Interviewing should not be a one-way street; you should be prepared with questions about the company. Ask questions that show you have done your research and that you have a strong interest in the company.
8. Be ready to negotiate.
When the company expresses an interest in hiring you, it is time to talk about your salary requirements. Using websites such as CareerStop and GlassDoor, you can get an idea of how much a given job pays in a specific geographical location.
During the interview, it is great to have the company say a number first. But if the interviewer does not do so, giving him or her a salary range that works for you can get the negotiating process going.
At the end of the day, you have to negotiate a salary that works for your lifestyle and needs and is reasonable for the geographical location in which you will live. And the negotiation does not begin and end with salary alone. People can sometimes negotiate time off, working from home, moving cost, and flexible hours.
9. Find a mentor.
As a career coach and counselor for over 4 years, I have noticed that some job seekers succeed at one part of the process of establishing a career, but fail at another. A person seeks and accepts assistance from a counselor or a career coach. He or she receives a lot of information on creating an effective resume, interviewing well, and negotiating; and then lands a job. But the person thinks this is the end of the journey. Unfortunately, a few months later, he or she is in front of me again – out of work.
People can lose their jobs after a short period of time due to a host of reasons. I urge you to behave proactively to keep your new position. First, learn the politics of the organization. In the military, I often found that people were eager to train and help out junior personnel. But in the civilian workforce, it is not always like that. So if possible, find a mentor within your new company – and ask your boss and co-workers for help as needed. If you are not getting the help you need, ask around to find the proper channels to use.
10. Stay ahead of the curve.
The last 15 years have taught us that getting into a company and staying for 30 years is not guaranteed. We are in a global economy, and many employees are being asked to do more than ever before. In addition, technology has created jobs that did not exist five years ago – and, as new technology comes along, the economy will need people with the ability to acquire fresh skills.
You have many options, including attending on-campus or online classes, learning on the job, just reading books, and using educational websites. Use these resources to your benefit and always continue to learn.
MEET THE AUTHOR
by ELIZABETH STETLER
Jonathan Harold enlisted in the United States Navy in 2002 because, like many others, he wanted to do something to protect his country, family, and friends after September 11. He served at Naval Station Great Lakes, Naval Base San Diego, Naval Station Norfolk, and the headquarters of Commander, Naval Forces Japan, in Yokosuka.
He began his military career as a sonar technician. This position required him to be highly responsible at an early age. “I was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment,” he said. “It was a good confidence builder.”
Later, he advanced to a quality-control position. He trained and monitored his command to ensure that regulations and guidelines for the equipment were being followed. He was also given freedom to change any guideline to make it more effective.
When Harold separated out of the Navy in 2009, he learned that plenty of help was available. “So many organizations out there want to help veterans,” he said, “not just within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but different non-profit groups. Government offices called CareerOneStop centers are also great resources. I didn’t use these resources as well as I could have because I didn’t know about them.”
Harold believes that active-duty personnel need to set themselves up for civilian success by taking as many classes as possible. He did so, and it paid off. He took the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES); test and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) test, and he was able to earn his bachelor’s degree at Ashford University with only thirty credits at the school. “I saved a lot of money – perhaps $20,000 or $30,000 in tuition – and got college credits by taking those tests,” he said. “I completed the majority of the credits I needed to obtain my bachelor’s degree while I was still in the Navy. I obtained my bachelor’s degree from Ashford University within 3 months after separating from the military in November 2009. And in 2012, I received my master’s degree in counselling from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.”
His first job after the Navy was with a company that prepares food for airlines to serve to passengers. “I was in charge of making sure the food preparation area was kept sanitary,” he said. “With my background in quality control, I was always looking for ways to make every process easier and more efficient. What I learned from this experience is that the skills you acquire in the military stay with you. Even if your job is completely different, you still have those skills.”
He also learned something about networking from that experience. “When I got out of the military and returned back home, all of my friends told me ‘there are no jobs.’ But I got that position within two weeks of getting out of the military through networking.”
He advises servicemembers who know where they want to work to start networking before getting out of the military. “If you know someone who works at a company where you would like to work, talk to them,” he said. “Ask them questions. Find out what qualities that company values. Those connections and that insider knowledge will take you a lot further than just your resume.”
Harold found his passion for helping veterans while working as a career counselor for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry from 2010 to 2013. He helped people find jobs and develop their resumes, taught them how to use social media to find jobs, ran workshops on finding employment, and assisted in hosting annual job fairs.
As a career counselor, he drew on his experiences as a sonar technician. “I collected data and analyzed it, similar to how I did things in the Navy,” he said. “Except this time it was about people. I used data to make sense of a problem and then fix it.”
He used this technique on a broader scale as well, applying it to the department’s office. “I took a closer look at what our unemployed population needed,” he said. “Then I analyzed what kinds of services we already had in place and what we did not – and from there, I created programs or services that filled those gaps.”
From December of 2013 to May of 2015, Harold worked at the Pennsylvania Department of Veterans Affairs as a vocational rehabilitation specialist/counselor. In this position, he worked with disabled veterans to prepare them for re-entry into the workforce.
After years of advising veterans in their careers, Harold has some advice he wants to give employers. “There are a lot of companies where veterans would be a great fit, but recruiters are looking for some specific skill set that maybe a veteran job seeker doesn’t have yet. But with a little more commitment from the companies, with a few weeks of training on a software system or whatever the need is, these companies would find that the veteran they hire would excel in that position.
“Veterans have a lot of experience and knowledge to offer, and they tend to be very loyal employees. They have transferable skills that make them great candidates. If treated well, they are in it for the long term. That's why I am passionate about helping veterans."
Currently, Jonathan works as a counselor for offenders at Pennsylvania Forensic Associates. He is also earning his doctorate of clinical psychology at Immaculata University in Malvern, Pennsylvania. He plans to use his degree to provide mental-health counseling for veterans.
Elizabeth Stetler is the editor of Search & Employ® and a veteran of the United States Army. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Harold