Your Camouflage Parachute: Work After the Military
How to find a civilian job or contractor job after the military.
By Sean Gallagher
If you’re moving from a military career to a civilian one — whether after returning from mobilized duty as a reservist, separating from the service or retiring — you’re facing more than a job change. You’re facing a whole new world. And especially in today’s challenging job market, how well you prepare your switch from the service to civilian life will have a major effect on how smooth and quick that transition is.
Indeed, this may not be an ideal moment to leave the service, Col. Dick Crampton, director of placement services for the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) told Ladders. “Unless you have to get out, or you have a job locked in and ready to go to, I would be very careful about this,” he said. “This is probably not the best time to be getting out of the military right now.”
And for reservists coming off active duty, there’s an even bigger barrier. Jim Deimer, a member of Ladders who’s now a human-resources manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said employers often balk at the commitment asked of reservists. Deimer, a former infantry officer in the Army Reserve, had been in HR in the banking industry and was mobilized in 2005. “That mobilization put me at a disadvantage” re-entering the workplace, Deimer said. “Employers would look at my resume and say, ‘Every five years, you’re going to be called up and asked to serve 18 months?’ A lot’s being asked of reservists.”
All this leaves service members on the cusp of the end of their careers feeling no small amount of trepidation. Chief Warrant Officer Trevor Dempsey, a Marine Corps personnel officer at Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego, is two years out from his retirement, and he’s already begun to work on his transition plan. “I have 18 years now, and I didn’t want to wait until the last minute to start looking for a job,” he said. “I wanted to get as much information and a head start on things as I possibly could.”
Dempsey said he’s seen his peers linger too long. “They waited until the last minute, or they waited until six months out or a year out to start collecting information. They didn’t have enough to get them the job that me t their requirements. O r they ended up doing something completely different that’s something that they hate and they’re looking for another job just as soon as they get the first job.”
The fastest year of your life
So start your move well before you’re leaving the service. The best first step is to use what’s available to you from the military to get the ball rolling. The services themselves provide a good first step, through the Transition Assistance Program , or TAP. TAP, a joint program of the Department of Defense, Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs, offers classes and career counseling for service members who are preparing to leave the military.
“The Navy recommends getting TAP as early as two years before separation,” Crampton said. “We say start at least a year out. The last year of active duty is the fastest year of your life. And unfortunately, you still have a full-time job, and as you know, looking for a job is a full-time job, so give yourself some time — I think the two most important things we tell them is one, start early, and two, involve your family.”
Demier went on to explain, “They do a good job preparing you to get your resume together, mock interviewing and setting expectations. So you don’t feel like, ‘I won a Silver Star, and I can’t get a job? Something’s wrong with that picture.’ ”
While Deimer found a position quickly (see story, Page 2), landing your first civilian position could take months. If you’re looking to move to a government civilian job — though the transition might be easier — it could take as long as six months. So it’s important to start your job search early as well – even if it’s just to help you practice.
“I would say a good lead time is if you know you’re getting out in 24 months — and that’s it, there’s no extension — to start interviewing, start getting some practice,” Deimer said. “It takes six months just to flesh out your interview style. As six months to separation approaches, you want something lined up.”
While interviewing is good, just interviewing for its own sake is a mistake, according to Mark Henderson, a retired Army colonel and one of the founders of Palladian International , an executive-search firm in Waynesboro, Va. “One of the bad pieces of advice I hear people repeat is, ‘Even if you don’t think you want the job, go do the interview.’ I hear people say, ‘I want to see if I can get a job offer out of this and then turn it down.’
I think that’s a disservice to the individual and to the company they interview with. Know what you want, and go after that. ”
Henderson said that reputable search firms won’t charge to help prepare for interviews and will do mock interviews with candidates to help them get their interview style polished.
The key to preparation for the job search, Henderson said, is honing a personal story that commercial managers can understand — an elevator pitch of your key strengths. “They have to learn how to tell their story, and do it succinctly. In the commercial market, a hiring manager is asking, ‘If I hire you, how are you going to make my company profitable?’ They can talk about how they managed budgets, how they were innovative.”
An army of one
Part of the preparation is preparing for the cultural shock of the civilian job market.
“When I retired, I didn’t get a call from the chief of staff of the Army asking me how my job search was going,” Crampton said. “You’ve got to start thinking about yourself. And that’s one difficult thing, too, because in the military, you’re programmed — it’s the military first. That’s just the way it is. Well, the time comes — and this is a difficulty many have — when you’ve gotta start thinking about yourself, and we’re not programmed that way.”
Include your family in the preparation as well. “Get your spouse involved in this because, you know, you’ve been a team for so long, especially for retirees,” said Crampton. “You know, the last thing you want to happen is — this happened to one guy, he interviewed for this job, and he did so well, and they called to invite him back, and his wife didn’t know that he interviewed, and she thought it was telemarketing, and she said, ‘We don’t want any,’ and she hung up on them. And then a week later, they’re talking, and he said, ‘Gee, honey, I forgot to tell you about this interview I had, and I really felt good about it, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard from them.’ The family is important in transitioning.”
One aspect of the culture of the private-sector job market that often surprises veterans is the absence of any response. “In the military, we’re used to, you correspond with someone, and they get back to you, whether it’s e-mail, whether it’s a letter, whether it’s a telephone. I had one guy tell me he was so angry because he was shooting out his resume and he wasn’t hearing from anybody. And, of course, he’s programmed thinking that way, and not understanding that IBM receives three million unsolicited resumes a year.”
A culture gap
There’s also a cultural barrier to overcome with employers when explaining how your military experience is relevant. Part of the problem is a misconception about the nature of military service. While the past seven years have raised the profile of the military in the civilian world, less than one percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, and employers in the private sector may not have a good understanding of how the leadership and management skills of the military apply to the commercial world.
“A lot of the employers don’t understand the functionality or the transferable skills we can bring to the organization,” Deimer said. “In my case, HR is pretty much HR wherever you go. But when you’re talking to people in sales, logistics, general management, it’s hard to figure out what a supply-management officer did in the reserve; or a Navy logistics officer; or a quartermaster; or even combat-arms people, who have had significant leadership opportunities.”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand who we are,” Crampton said. There are false perceptions maybe about the military. Lieutenant General (William) Pagonis — who was responsible for logistics planning during Desert Shield and Desert Storm — went to work at retail giant Sears. Sears executives admitted after they hired him that they (had been) concerned, that they’d never hired anyone from the military at the higher levels at Sears. They used words like ‘autocratic’ and ‘not a team player’ (to describe the military culture), and they (asked), ‘How would a Rambo fit in at our headquarters?’ ” Pagonis was a key player in engineering Sears’ turnaround.
“Companies get a flawed perception of what a military guy is capable of,” added Henderson. “They’re much more flexible than [employers] believe. I was a colonel when I interviewed with my first company — they asked if I was going to be able to answer my own phone!”
Crossing that cultural divide will require translating your experience and skills into terms private employers will understand. It also may require educating employers about the scope of what military service entails. “So many vets are afraid of listing military experience, or maybe any applicable experience that has a hint of the military to it, ” said Deimer. “Because sometimes you get unintentionally discriminated against. I’m not faulting anyone for it , it’s just the ignorance of folks, who once they know more about it they won’t discard it as they have in the past.”
Locate those who have transitioned
Networking is key to bridging those gaps. People you’ve worked with in the service who’ve preceded you into the civilian world are a good place to start — Deimer found his position through a former reserve colleague he had worked with 10 years ago. And there are several associations and organizations that can help you expand your network quickly. MOAA, for example, has made networking a major focus of its transition assistance efforts, with regional networking services available through its W eb site to members. “We have over 400 chapters throughout the United States,” Crampton said, “and what we’re doing now with our networking program is trying to pull the chapters in to be involved with us, too. For example, we are having a networking meeting here in the Washington, D.C., area in April at the Army/Navy Country Club for the two local chapters here — for the Mt. Vernon chapter and the NoVA chapter — to get people together who are MOAA members who are in the workforce to be networking contacts. But also we’re bringing some employers.” MOAA also holds large job fairs.
Who is military friendly?
Some organizations have been set up recently to specifically assist veterans’ job searches. HireAHero.org has set up a social networking site specifically to connect veterans with a network of other veterans already in the work force, and with employers. And there are a number of other organizations that offer networking opportunities.” (S ee ”Fatigues to Pinstripes” Page 5.) There are a lot of organizations out there wanting and trying to help our service members as they get out,” Crampton said. “So, definitely take advantage of that. They’re out there, you know, people are very patriotic, they care about our service members, and they want to help them.”
Some employers are military-friendly by nature. In the public sector — such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Deimer now works — there’s a preference given to veterans in the selection of candidates. Veterans are given a five-point preference in the candidate-selection process for civil-service positions — 10 points if they have a service-related disability. But that just gets you higher on the list of candidates to interview. (See story, Page 4.)
Also inherently veteran-friendly are defense and government contractors — especially for those who’ve held a security clearance. There’s no problem in translating your military experience for them, in general. “The DoD contractors out there, they want to see that stuff,” Crampton said. ” Because who are they? They’re just you, but a little bit older. And they’re looking for people like these men and women who are getting out, and they understand the lingo, and they’re saying, ‘Don’t hide it, let us know.’ ”
But more and more private employers are seeing the benefit of military service. Deimer remembers speaking with an executive at corporate recruiter Korn/Ferry, “They did a really nice article for clients on junior military officers, and how they developed significant leadership and management skills in the reserve. Not having been afforded those opportunities in the private sector, that really put them ahead. And it wasn’t until a lot of CEOs read that article or became familiar with what junior military officers or career military people bring to the table that now we’re starting to get some more opportunities for veterans.”
Perhaps the most important thing to bring to your preparation for transition is something core to military culture — a can-do attitude. “It’s just persistence,” Deimer said. ”You can’t give up.”
Sean Gallagher is a former naval officer and freelance journalist. He has spent much of the last 19 years covering defense and technology and is the former editor-in-chief of Defense Systems magazine. Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, MD.