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Starting Over When the Job Opportunities Vanish

Troy Leck 152x260

When Master Sgt. Troy Leck graduated from high school more than two decades ago, the self described "punk 18 year old" wasn't sure if college was right for him. It seemed that he didn't have a plan - other than wanting to see the world - when he signed up for the Air Force.

Leck met his goal of being a world traveler during his long and storied Air Force career. And after his transition from the service he planned to enter a great civilian profession, or so he thought. Those plans took a nose dive when the economy began to falter, and he once again found himself wondering what he was going to do with his life and career aspirations.

In the following Veterans Transition Interview, Leck explains how he was able to make a course correction when his transition didn't go quite as expected, and what he would have done differently to be prepared for today's job market.

Military.com: Why did you join the service?
Troy Leck: That's a tricky question. Looking back, I guess I wasn't ready to go to college. I didn't know what I wanted to do and being a punk 18 year old I didn't know if college was the right thing for me. So a friend and I went to the Air Force recruiting station talked to one of the recruiters. I decided to join, one thing led to another, and I made a career of it.

M: Did you fill your military career goals while you were in the service?
TL: When I decided to re-enlist at the four-year point I didn't really have any career goals at the time. But once I cross trained into communication/computer Systems control (tech control), I realized how much I enjoyed it. I thought that this is something I really want to keep doing. I focused more on my technical abilities, and certifications than getting promoted. I would have been great to make E-9, chief master sergeant, but it just didn't happen.

I did not complete the education that I wanted to. I got about halfway there. I have two AA degrees from the Air Force, and I would have liked to finish my bachelor's. I kept finding excuses why I couldn't finish. But I'm playing catch up now. I'm going to Colorado Technical University, I'm in my senior year, and I'll complete my bachelor's in Information Systems Management. And my plan is to take one term off and go straight for my Master's. You know, I've got the GI Bill Benefits sitting there, I can't let them go to waste.

M: What were your career goals after you left the service?
TL: I had every intention of being a typical retired military guy, and transferring over to a defense contractor position. It was a very easy move - it's what a lot of people do. I had my Top Secret clearance, so it seemed like a natural career path.

When I started job hunting, I found it quite a bit more challenging than I expected. At the time I was naive to what the civilian job market was like. I didn't understand that I would be competing with job seekers who were already employed as well as those who didn't have jobs. I just wanted to find a job, and I had a lot of interviews with major defense companies in Colorado Springs, Colo. I had a bunch of contingency offers, meaning if they were awarded a contract I would get a job. When I retired in October 2006, which was a tough time to retire because that's the end of the fiscal year for the Military, everything was in limbo as far as contracts are concerned. So I thought about it, talked it over with my wife, and decided to wash my hands of the defense arena and start over. I started looking for jobs in the commercial sector, and had my resume posted all over the place. I stumbled across a few jobs at Progressive, I applied for a job on their website, and ended up getting an e-mail from them about an IT Career night in my area. I went, talked to hiring managers, had an interview scheduled shortly afterwards, and ended up getting the job. Progressive has a very advanced IT department and they're an awesome company to work for.

M: Are you using the skills learned in the military towards your current job?
TL: Definitely. A lot of the skills I learned in the military come into play every day at work. One thing I notice is that I'm learning a lot more than I would have at a position in the Air Force. The position I'm in requires more than just doing IT stuff. I do data analysis on different programs and systems, strategic planning, process improvement and work on cost reduction initiatives - it's allowed me to broaden my horizons in the IT arena.

M: What was the hardest part of your transition?
TL: I had a hard time finding the best way to translate my military skills to a civilian resume. There is a way to phrase military skills so it means something to your future employer. If I put superintendant on my resume that means nothing to an employer like Progressive. A civilian employer wouldn't understand that superintendant means that I managed three work centers with 77 people. It took me a couple weeks to find suitable substitutes for most of my positions so people could understand it.

I used the family support center on base at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado to help me rewrite my resume, and then I talked to some people in the community who would potentially read my resume to get their feedback.

M: What would you have done differently?
TL: As far as my preparation, I would have started earlier. I started my terminal leave in July 2006, and I didn't attend a TAP seminar until May - very poor planning on my part. I recommend servicemembers use the TAP program. You're allowed to go through it twice, so I recommend going through it two years out, and then again within your last year. What they teach, at least on the Air Force side, is invaluable. If I had that knowledge under my belt a year before separating, I would have been much more prepared.

M: What advice would you give other transitioning servicemembers?
TL: I think the biggest thing transitioning servicemembers need to keep in mind is that they have obtained hard and soft skills that any employer will welcome. But a lot of times servicemembers don't know how to translate them, especially with career fields that aren't in the mainstream, such as being a network engineer in the military. Those skills translate directly to the civilian work force.

When I speak at TAP classes I try to tell everyone that they have job skills that will transfer easily, such as leadership, time management, discipline, the ability to work well with others in a team, a lot of those things are very important in the civilian arena, and these are things we take for granted in the military.

Be flexible and willing to think about jobs outside of what you think you should do - like me when I thought I could only go into defense contracting - and translate those skills into something you think the employer is looking for.

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