How to Build a Professional Network for Your Civilian Career

(U.S. Army/Nell King)

Few places in the world provide better technical and job skills training than the United States military. But for all their technical knowledge, expertise, education and hands-on experience, separating service members often lack the most critical element to getting a job: a professional network.

Of course, it’s still very possible to get a job through traditional means, which includes searching for listings on job sites and applying, through placement programs and the like. But many find success through their networks. These are groups of like-minded professionals who work in similar industries and know people working in the companies in those industries.

As time goes on, they become the decision-makers when it comes to creating jobs and filling them with good people, often people they know.

Military members, on the other hand, spend time at different bases and working with people who often only work in the military. As a result, their interactions with the civilian side of their career field can be limited and their civilian professional networks very small, if they exist at all.

But separating service members still have options when it comes to starting these networks.

Informational Interviews

You may not have a job interview with a company you like, or you may not have applied with the company at all (yet), but that doesn’t mean you can’t interact with them.

It’s actually very common for people to reach out to hiring managers and human resources professionals for informational interviews. You may find a point of contact on a job listing, or you can go looking for one on a professional networking site.

Once you find them and a way to contact them, you can reach out and see whether they’re willing to give a few minutes of their time to talk about the company, the culture and more general questions about the industry. Be honest and tell them you’re a separating veteran trying to get to know the civilian workforce. You’ll find many people willing to help.

It’s important that you don’t reach out through their private social media channels and accept a no if that’s the answer they give. This is your first impression, and you need to make it count by showing off the professionalism the military attempted to instill in you.

If you get the chance to talk, treat it like a job interview and be prepared. You’re going to be asking the questions, so think of questions that not only will inform you about the company and the industry, but also reflect your knowledge and education.

The bonus part of this kind of interaction is that they might connect you with more people or civilian networking groups in the field. If they’re part of the hiring process for a job you want, it could give you a leg up against other candidates.

Professional Networking Groups

Many cities and career fields have organizations or chapters of national organizations filled with like-minded professionals. It gives people in certain industries or similar companies a chance to interact with one another, talk shop or just get to know each other on a personal level.

It also gives you the chance to integrate into the civilian world as slowly or as fast as they would like, let the civilians in the industry get to know you personally and make them aware of your personal and professional goals.

Once the topic turns to talking shop, you can demonstrate your knowledge of your career field. If you have good friends in related fields, when the time to fill an open job comes up, you might be the person who comes to mind. In many instances, this leads to someone asking for your résumé, for an interview and -- with the endorsement of a knowledgeable and trusted colleague who knows you -- a job offer.

All without competing for the slot with hundreds of other qualified candidates. That’s the power of networking. It all starts with building that network from scratch.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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