Spc. Nicholas Howell has at least one major Army assignment ahead of him before he can think about pursuing a career in the civilian world.
The Stryker soldier is deploying to Afghanistan late this fall with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and he'll stay in the combat zone through mid-2013.
Just the same, Howell, 28, spent part of Thursday testing his hands at the kind of private-sector construction work he'd like to find when he leaves the Army. He's preparing in case his military career gets cut short by anticipated Defense Department downsizing over the next decade.
"I might be one of those guys who hasn't done anything wrong but still gets cut if they want to keep someone with more experience," said Howell, a two-time veteran of the Iraq war with the 4th Brigade.
He was among hundreds of soldiers and military spouses who checked out college recruiters and trade organizations at a career fair on Lewis-McChord. The parking lot was packed, showing heavy interest among military families in what the private sector holds for them.
The event was especially popular this year because of the addition of recruiters for apprenticeships that soldiers can pursue to earn trade certificates while receiving GI Bill benefits. In the past, Lewis-McChord had focused on colleges.
"We get so many transitioning service members that don't think they're college material, but they like working with their hands, and they can go right to work," said Amy Moorash, who organized the apprenticeship event through Lewis-McChord's education services office.
She wasn't surprised to hear of soldiers coming to the event because of concerns about downsizing. The Army plans to reduce its ranks by about 72,000 soldiers over the next few years.
"We know the Army is drawing down certain units, so we want to provide as many opportunities as we can for service members to find jobs and education," she said.
The troops who headed out to the apprenticeship exhibits voiced a mix of optimism and nervousness about their futures.
"When I get out, I'll be fine," said Spc. Kaleel Salmon, 20. He's at the beginning of his Army career, and he wants to shape it in such a way that he'll be ready to hit the ground running when he leaves the service and returns home to Miami.
Others face tougher and more immediate challenges.
Staff Sgt. Clifton Roberts of Lewis-McChord's 508th Military Police company is in the midst of the Army's medical retirement process. A traumatic brain injury and post-concussive complications make it difficult for the nine-year veteran to do the labor-intensive work he enjoyed before joining the service.
"I've been an extremely physical guy all my life, and (now) I can't be," he said.
He was drawn to apprentice programs that would enable him to receive an Army housing allowance and tuition. He picked up information that he hopes will guide him to a career as a physical therapist.
"Now I have to readjust my plan to things I can work on," said Roberts, 32, of Yelm.
Howell, the soon-to-be deployed soldier, looked comfortable behind the controls of house-sized earthmoving equipment.
He ought to be, having spent the past five years driving some of the Army's heaviest vehicles. His practice on the backhoe gave him a taste of how those skills might carry over to civilian life.
"Not nervous at all," he said, stepping down from a backhoe. "Too easy."
Find out more about making the move back to civilian life at Military.com's Transition Center.