In the next five years, a million service members will be transitioning back to civilian life. So will their families.
With high rates of unemployment and a tight economy looming large, for many this move can be the most challenging yet.
If you and your service member suspect there is a transition on your horizon, make it easy on your family, your wallet and your peace of mind with these five steps.
1. Step Away From Your Current Duty Station.
If you're thinking about just moving home, think again. One of the most common misconceptions we hear from transitioning families is that the military will move you only to your home of record.
"That's what we were told," said Melanie, wife to a newly transitioned Marine. "We weren't going to move back to the middle of Iowa, so we just stayed here."
'Here' is Jacksonville, N.C., home to Camp Lejeune, high unemployment and few professional options. "It's bad just for wives looking for work. So it's a lot worse when it's two people looking for jobs here. It's two people not getting jobs."
Melanie's husband worked Motor T in the Corps, and with strong fitness reports and great references, they assumed he could easily get a job at one of the many auto repair stores and dealerships in the area.
"But no one was hiring. They only seemed to hire locals," Melanie said.
Melanie and her Marine fell into a common trap: They didn't think they had any flexibility when it came to where to move after the military.
"I thought it was move home, or tough," she said. "My friends all moved home, and that didn't work for them." Staying at a military installation with few career choices is rarely the best bet, though.
In truth, the military will pay to move you to your home of record -- but more technically, it will pay to move you the distance from where you are to the office out of which you were recruited. However many miles that is from your base is how many miles it will pay to move you.
But -- a BIG BUT -- it will move you wherever you want. You're just responsible for the difference in mileage.
With the road wide open, where should you move? Sit down and talk with your spouse about that now, well before you have homes to find or move orders to fill out. Discuss your employment assets. What skills do you have? What kind of post-military career do you want for your family? And move where those jobs are plentiful.
"Now we're talking about going to Texas," Melanie said. "He's getting some job offers from energy companies there, and I can work in healthcare. There are places where there are so many jobs."
Now that they have found a place they can both find work, the only obstacle in front of them is paying for the move itself. "The Corps would have paid for this if I had thought of it before," she said.
2. Step Onto Job Options for Everyone.
If the move ahead isn't change enough, think about the way this transition may be affecting the traditional roles inside your family.
"I had so many questions. Am I supposed to work now?" asks Air Force wife Cheryl, who hasn't had a paying job in 10 years.
"My job has been to hold the family together through deployments, training. Laundry and school and drop off and pick up. That was my job. I knew my role. What am I supposed to do now?"
This is an important question to ask yourself and your service member. What do both of you have to offer the civilian market? Should all the effort be focused on one person? Should both of you start looking for work just to increase the likelihood there will be some income coming in once your service member gets out?
"We sat down at the table once the kids were in bed and tried to figure it out. We both have skills to offer, and we thought it was better for me to look for work also. Not just him. This way if I got a job first, we knew we could make our mortgage payment. And if he was lucky and found work right away, we would be able to look at their pay rates and decide if I need to work too."
When you're used to have a reliable paycheck hit your bank account every 15 days, these conversations can be scary.
"My advice would be to plan on working, too," Cheryl said. "If he gets a job and it doesn't work out, you still have your income coming in. It's scary for them, not having the job they're used to. So you have to step up."
3. Step Up To Your Own Job Search.
Even if you are sure your service member will find a great job right away or yours will be there for the long haul, ensuring a smooth transition into civilian life means playing it safe and preparing for a job search, just in case.
Think of it as civilian family readiness. That means cleaning up (or starting) your resume, getting your online profile ready to be searched for and found, and getting in touch with your references to let them know your family is about to transition and that you might be calling on them in the future.
"I really didn't have a resume going into it," said Lauren, who recently got her Associate's degree in business and is a mother of three.
Lauren's husband just got out of the Army, and her family spent four months in upheaval as they tried to figure out what they would do next.
"We had a person on post who helped me put a resume together, and that made it a lot easier to start looking for jobs," she said. "Instead of hourly work, I applied to local real estate offices for work. Having a real resume in hand made me seem more reliable, and it opened up doors."
The act of creating a resume was also a good exercise for Lauren, who had yet to really think through what she offered employers.
"Making me sit down and write it out made me think hard about it," she said. "It helped prepare me to look for work and to talk to employers. I knew what my strengths were right away."
Creating or cleaning up a resume is a good exercise, and one you should do right away, even if you don't intend to be the breadwinner in your family.
"Maybe there's someone on post who can help you," Lauren said. That way, you know if you need to, you are ready to apply for a job. That can be a comfort to your spouse, too. Just to know you're ready, willing, and able."
4. Step Out To Find An Upgrade.
As you start your job search, you might find a hole in your own resume -- someplace you need to strengthen your experiences to really showcase your strengths.
To do that, consider adding volunteer work to your schedule that would help you cultivate those skill sets.
For example, if you are selling your administrative skills, look for volunteer positions in which you could help out at the front office. Churches, schools and non-profits frequently take on volunteers for these roles, and by offering your time, you will be able to bolster your skills, develop a current reference, and add experience to your resume.
This kind of involvement before a job search is particularly important for the long-term unemployed or stay-at-home parents who have been working full-time jobs for their family.
Not only does it show you are a serious candidate ready to work, it helps fill any holes you have in your resume. If there is a possibility you might need to add to the family income, prepare yourself for that future role by adding to your resume now.
"If I thought about it, I would have tried to do something to make my resume look fresher," Lauren said. "Our local library always had volunteers, and I could have signed up to teach the basic computer skills class. It would have shown leadership and basic computer know-how. That's better for an employer. Volunteering while you can is a really good idea."
If you are looking for more fruitful ways to lend volunteer hours to your professional CV, look here. You are not be the first military spouse in history who needs to find a way to translate a choppy or non-existent employment history into something professional, so rely on the experts: other spouses, just like you, who have done it successfully.
5. Step Toward Your Network.
Military life has taught you how important meeting people is: Getting out there and making a home at a new installation, making friends, connecting your kids with a new community.
When it comes to transitioning successfully from military life into a civilian one with a paying job, the same thing is true.
"If you could tell spouses to do one thing before they transition, tell them to network," said Karey, a seasoned Army spouse who recently navigated her family's transition and has helped many younger wives do the same.
"The problem is, you get out into the job market and your husband's skills don't count like they used to. They should mean something more than they do, but they don't," she said. "So the man is used to earning the dough, now feels like he's not good enough. That makes it worse. If you start networking in the beginning, you do him a favor. You help yourself, yeah, but you also show him how."
So where do you get started? Who should you network with? Start with the people you know getting out. Where are they going? Do they have any job leads? Talk to those you know who have already made the transition. What has worked for them? What has not? And then think about where you are moving: It's time to start networking there, too. If you are not sure how to do it, check out our full guide to networking.
"It all comes down to elbow grease and grace," Karey said. "If you want things to go well, you can count on luck, but it won't get you anywhere if you don't work for it."
For anyone with transition on the horizon, that work should start today. Make your transition a success story. Step into your own future now.