How to Find a Career After Military Service
By Sergeant Major John L. Horton, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Proceedings, July 2004
A job-search campaign after leaving the military is likely to seem fraught with more peril, heartache, and hardships than military life ever did. Here are some tips to help you sail through the transition.
Most servicemembers, particularly enlisted personnel, lack adequate civilian job-hunting skills so are ill prepared for the current rabid competition for decent jobs. Even successful companies and agencies at all government levels are "right sizing" to remain profitable and competitive. Meanwhile, many professionals and managers have had to lower their career expectations and accept lesser positions to remain employed. In some cases, positions normally considered "enlisted turf" are being accepted by retiring officers and highly qualified civilians.
These trends can dampen the hopes of former military personnel who are trying to get it right the first time out of the chute. The truth is, many former servicemen and -women will be unemployed, partially unemployed, or underemployed during their first years out of the military. This is particularly true for enlisted, junior, and less well educated men and women. A disproportionate number will accept jobs not commensurate with their skills and abilities, because few employers understand or will compensate adequately for maturity, development, and leadership qualities. Often, prospective employers offer lower wages to retirees knowing they are receiving retired pay, and falsely believe retirees do not merit the same compensation as civilians applying for the same positions.
The best advice for those leaving the armed forces is to take their job searches seriously. The military does not prepare servicemen and -women to look for jobs effectively—the best positions go to those who are best equipped to find them. A good deal of homework and a determined, disciplined effort will be required. Someone with average skills and salary requirements should spend 30 to 40 hours a week on his or her search. Someone who wants to earn a high salary, is more than 40 years old, or is in a minority demographic should spend 45 to 60 hours weekly.
A job-search campaign likely will last between three and nine months—or about a month for every $10,000 in salary desired—and longer for older or minority candidates or those with less education or without recent training. Transitioning personnel should begin planning a year before their departure dates, investigating relocation, occupational aptitude, additional training and education, and adjustment to civilian life. Depending on circumstances and finances, some may need to begin transitioning sooner.
Take-home pay decreases significantly when a servicemember separates or retires from active duty. On separation or retirement, military personnel lose housing and subsistence allowances, family separation pay, health coverage, death gratuities, and a host of other benefits. Sufficient funds should be set aside to cover mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, car expenses, food, and any required debts. In addition, it is important to reserve job-search expenses, which can include:
New clothing and interview attire
Career development and job-search courses, seminars, and workshops
Counseling and employment agency fees
Books, publications, and periodicals
Administrative or secretarial assistance (for resumes, cover letters, typing, printing, document reproduction, answering service)
Postage, telephone, and fax costs
Networking and socializing expenses
Membership dues and fees
The Internal Revenue Service allows deductions for certain job-hunt expenses. See IRS Publication 17, or contact the IRS by telephone, in person, or at www.irs.gov.
The perennial best-seller, What Color Is Your Parachute?
(Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2004), by Richard Nelson Bolles, is considered the bible for job hunters and career changers. (For more insight and advice from Bolles, visit the companion site to his book at www.JobHuntersBible.com
.) According to Bolles, the properly conducted job search is a multifaceted process that can be simplified by understanding the answers to three questions:
What kind of work do you want to do?
Where do you want to do this work?
Who is the person with the authority to hire you?
Further, Bolles notes three fundamental skills for a successful job search:
Resume writing skills
When it comes to clinching the job, he points out that it boils down to answers to five employer inquiries:
Why are you here?
What can you do for us?
What kind of person are you?
What distinguishes you from other applicants?
Can I afford you?
The resources below, along with Bolles’s book, which is updated each year, deal with these problematic job-search variables:
Probably the best way to find a job is to tell everyone: family, friends, neighbors, retirees, strangers—everyone. In addition, there are a myriad of other networking and job-assistance resources to draw on. The following is just a sampling:
- Transition from Military to Civilian Life, by Merle Dethlefsen and James D. Canfield
- The Complete Job-Search Handbook, by Howard Figler
- The New Perfect Resume, by Tom Jackson
- Who’s Hiring Who?, by Richard Lathrop
- Martin’s Magic Formula for Getting the Right Job, by Phyllis Martin
- Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed, by H. Anthony Medley
- Career Planning Today: Hire Me, by C. R. Powell
- Secrets of the Hidden Job Market, by Bob Rodgers, with Steve Johnson and Bill Alexander
- Knock ’Em Dead: with Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions, by Martin John Yate
- Other good resources include The Wall Street Journal, National Business Employment Weekly, USA Today, Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Working Woman, and Black Enterprise.
Honorably discharged veterans, Purple Heart recipients, medically disabled personnel, and certain others qualify for bonus points and special consideration for most federal and some state and local government positions. Local Veterans Administration or government employment offices have all the facts. Moreover, those interested in working for the federal government may want to check out How to Get a Federal Job, by Krandall Kraus, and Federal Career Opportunities (703-281-0200 in Annandale, VA).
- Family Service Centers on military bases and installations (free workshops, seminars, publications, materials).
- Military Officers Association of America, 201 N. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314-2529, 800-234-6622/703-549-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Noncommissioned Officers Association, NCOA Headquarters, 10635 IH 35 N, San Antonio, TX 78233, 800-662-2620, www.ncoausa.org.
- The American Legion National Headquarters, 700 N Pennsylvania St., P.O. Box 1055, Indianapolis, IN 46206, 317-630-1200, www.legion.org.
- Disabled American Veterans National Headquarters, 3725 Alexandria Pike, Cold Spring, KY 41076, 859-441-7300, www.dav.org.
- Veterans of Foreign Wars National Headquarters, Foundation, Suite 820, 406 West 34th St., Kansas City, MO 64111, 816-756-3390, email@example.com.
- Director, Office of Personnel and Labor Relations, Veterans Administration, 810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20420 (free information, publications, and assistance).
- Office of the Assistant Secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training, Department of Labor, Room S-1315, Department of Labor
- Building, Washington, DC 20210 (free information, publications, and assistance).
- Local libraries: public, college, military, private. The librarian can help find books, periodicals, references, videos, lectures, seminars, workshops, study rooms, computers, copy machines, and an endless assortment of networking and job-hunting resources.
- Local/out-of-town employment offices, chambers of commerce, and trade and professional associations.
- The Office of Personnel Management, located in most major cities and regions, is an excellent resource for personnel who are transitioning or retiring. In general, transitioning personnel (nonretirees) can work for the Department of Defense (DoD) as well as for agencies outside DoD. Retirees can work for any outside-DoD agency.
Preemployment testing is a fact of life in today’s job market—especially for better-paying jobs, but even for entry-level and minimum-wage jobs. Test types include basic skills and aptitude, psychological, physical, medical, drug, polygraph, loss prevention, equipment operation, and computer literacy.
Personality and occupational inventories (self-assessments) help answer two important questions about candidates: who are they, and what can they do best? One good tool for determining these two aspects of a candidate’s personality-occupational potential is the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory Test. Most military bases, adult education centers, and community colleges offer this test, as well as numerous others, for free or for a nominal fee. Another excellent resource is If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll Probably End Up Somewhere Else, by David Campbell. Additional resources pertaining to personality-occupational potential include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, available from CPP, Inc. (www.cpp.com/products/mbti/index.asp), endorsed by the Myers & Briggs Foundation as "the only on-line option that adheres to the ethical delivery of the Indicator"; "John Holland’s Self-Directed Search" (www.self-directed-search.com), $8.95 for an 8- to 16-page personalized report that takes 15-20 minutes to complete; and the aforementioned Job Hunters Bible Web site.
To prepare to excel on a test, an applicant should obtain a similar test to practice such things as following directions, developing a strategy, gauging effectiveness at guessing, and overcoming nervousness.
Some items to have available during a job search, many of which can be taken to an interview session, include:
Veterans called to active duty from Reserve and National Guard units are protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act with a guarantee that they will be able to reclaim their jobs under most circumstances. It covers such job-related components as pay, status, pensions, retraining, and health benefits. For further information, veterans can contact their local employment or Veterans Affairs office.
- Completed (sample) "master application form" that includes date of birth, Social Security number, addresses, phone numbers, ZIP codes, references, memberships, account numbers, family information, employment history, education and training, special skills, licenses/credentials, and other relevant information
- Identification and business cards
- Copies of resume(s)
- All correspondence with the prospective employer
- Letters of reference and introduction
- Social Security card
- Military discharge papers (DD-214, etc.)
- Driver’s license
- School and college transcripts
- Union/craft card
- Cash, checkbook, credit cards
- Writing paper, pens, pencils, notepads, 3x5 cards, paper clips, rubber bands
- Letter-sized envelopes, thank-you cards, stamps
- Change for phone calls, vending machines, parking meters, stamps, public toilets
- Maps (local and out-of-town)
Job candidates should remember to involve their families in their plans and searches, to share their feelings and disappointments, and to ask for help. Doing so can mean the difference between success and failure. It is attitude, not aptitude, that will determine one’s altitude in life. While tackling this stressful and demanding challenge, persistence and a positive outlook will prove invaluable.
Sergeant Major Horton served in the Marine Corps from 1958 to 1988. For the past five years, he has served as the employment and restitution coordinator for Norfolk Juvenile Courts
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