Q: I separated from the Army 18 months ago and I believe I have many useful and valuable skills, but the only positions I get interviews for are entry level. Is that the best I can hope for as I leave the military?
A: In your question, "Is that the best I can hope for ...?" you imply that taking an entry-level job would mean settling, selling out or doing less than you are capable of. It is not uncommon for someone coming out of the military to see their civilian career as a step backward -- initially.
In fact, many people in career transition find themselves backing up in order to move forward in their career. While you earned seniority, experience and rank in your previous career, you are starting over in a new culture, industry and career when you leave the military for the civilian sector.
You might find yourself competing with recent college graduates for a position, yet you have 10 years of experience in real-world situations and managing people and multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment, often in high stress situations.
Before you take an entry-level position, ask yourself:
1. Do I Need the Money or Benefits?
Life happens, and sometimes we find ourselves taking a lower-rank job out of necessity. Providing for yourself and your family is honorable and should be admired. If this is your reason, then create a truthful narrative for yourself (and your resume) to explain the necessity of the move. For instance, remind yourself that you are a survivor and a protector; you take care of those who depend on you.
Let your professional network and potential employers (who you may still target in the hopes of moving to a better position) know that you see this as an opportunity to expand your skills, experience and exposure to a new industry and type of work. Remind them that you are a resilient and hard-working person.
2. Have I Truly Tried to Get a Higher Position?
Be honest with yourself: Have you really done everything in your power to secure a position that is better aligned with your goals, skills and experience? Or did you fill out some online applications, join some social networking groups, civilianize your resume and wait for the phone to ring?
Making a successful career transition from the military to the civilian workforce takes focus, strategy and hard work. You must become proficient in networking, personal branding, interviewing and alignment of your skills and values with those of your target employer.
3. What's My Strategy for Using This Job to Grow My Career?
Taking an entry-level job can be a great way to prove yourself to the company, learn new skills and grow your exposure to influencers who can promote you. In addition, an entry-level job can give you the skills, training and civilian job experience you need to blend with your military experience to make you more marketable to a new employer.
For these reasons, when you take an entry-level job, it is important to have a strategy for using that position to grow your career. Don't just settle in and accept that it was the best you could do.
If you accept the entry-level job, your career strategy should include:
- An inventory of what you have to offer (talents, skills, values)
- Understanding of what you want to be seen as credible for (experience, credentials)
- Clarity around who you really want to work for (target employers, industries)
- Deciding whether you will need additional skills, certifications and education to grow your career
- Assessment of your contacts: Do you know influencers, stakeholders and colleagues who will advocate, endorse and refer you?
- Honesty with yourself about your presence: Are you exhibiting behavior and an image of someone who is professional, current and driven? Do you show up that way online and in person?
Taking a job you feel is beneath you is never easy. But if you can separate the emotional ("I am settling ...") from the practical ("I will work hard, learn a lot and show my value to this employer") then you can clearly see whether it's a move that makes career sense or is decided out of frustration.
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