How Veterans Can Get a Year's Worth of Networking Done in One Day

orange alien attends military trade show and finds gold

If I have learned one thing about veterans on the job hunt, it is this: veterans hate networking. Seriously, they hate it, especially the introverts. Ask them to run to the sound of guns, they are in. Ask them to dive into a pit of zombies, they are already there.

Ask them to network so that they can find a job? Their eyes roll to the back of their heads, and they stagger around like lost aliens until someone leads them by the hand to the nearest cup of bad coffee.

As's transition master coach, I've helped more than 13,000 veterans learn the skills they need to land a job. The hardest skill to teach is networking -- an absolutely essential part of landing a high-paying job in this economy.

Still, veterans hate networking. That's why I think military conferences and trade shows, like Sea-Air-Space in the Washington, D.C., area April 3-5, are the secret to getting all your networking done in one day.

Hear me out, Introverts. I know you think conferences are only for extroverts who love talking to strangers. Not so. There is so much more you can do at a conference or trade show that fits in with your personal preferences. Pick and choose the skills that work best for you:

19 Ways Job Seekers Find Gold at Military Trade Shows and Conferences

1. Go before you need a job. Conferences and trade shows are really the place to go before you leave the service. Active-duty military get in for free. Members of the general public are not permitted. If you haven't already, start attending as you become more senior, especially when you are a year or two away from retirement. You will be amazed at how many people you know in a suit.

2. Fly in stealth mode. Most introverted veterans do not like chatting with strangers. Shoot, most introverted veterans do not actually "chat." The introvert's goal at a conference is to observe the defense environment in your geographic area as represented on the exhibitor's floor. Who are the big players? Who are the up-and-comers? Who has a product that interests or surprises you?

3. Recognize true networking. Even for extroverts, the best networking rarely happens among

warm cocktails served in plastic cups with cold strangers. It looks like saying hello to people you already know. It looks like being introduced to the person next to them. It looks like recognizing someone from three duty stations ago. It looks like asking and answering questions. No big deal.

4. Prep your answers. At every conference, you will be asked two questions:

  • What are you doing now?
  • What is next for you?

Plan and practice your answers. I'm not saying you need a whole three-paragraph elevator pitch. I mean you need to decide what to say in a sentence or two and practice a little so you sound like your regular self and not like you are having an existential crisis.

5. Prep your questions. You don't have to be a brilliant conversationalist and professional juggler at a conference. You do need to know what to ask. Here is a list of questions that will spark a conversation. Pick two and use them constantly.

  • What are you working on?
  • What are you excited about?
  • What about this inflation? How is it impacting you?
  • How long have you been with the company?
  • Who else do you think I should talk to while I'm here?

6. Collect your stellar interview answers now. The exhibitor's floor is a great place to collect your best interview answers. In every interview during transition, you can expect that the hiring manager will ask some version of: Why do you want to work here? This is where you are supposed to unleash everything you researched about their company. It is especially good to say that you noticed their company at Sea-Air-Space or AUSA or Modern Marine and talk about their product.

7. Join the professional association that sponsors the conference. Association members attend the conferences for free. They also have opportunities to volunteer at the conference. Helping out at an industry conference can be a great way for introverts to get to know the network while contributing an essential function.

8. Cherry-pick your panels. Professional associations bring in guest speakers like Defense Department secretaries and under secretaries, the chief of naval operations and the U.S. Marine Corps commandant to talk about special interests like the future of warfare or cybersecurity. If you are interested in the topics or know the speaker, the likelihood that you will know other people in that audience is high.

9. Time your visit. Conferences and trade shows are like a good party. They take a minute to warm up. I think the best time to go is the afternoon of the first day, any time on the second day or the morning of the third day. You can even go on two different days if you are meeting a lot of people or your retirement date is imminent.

10. Look like you belong. The nice thing about military conferences is that they usually tell you the dress code so that everyone feels at ease. If you are still active duty, they will have the official uniform listed for each branch. It is good to go in uniform. If you are out of the military, official attire for attendees is usually something like "business attire" or "business professional." Translate this as a blazer or suit jacket with open-collar shirt for men, not an interview suit. For women, anything but jeans and cleavage will work. (Oh, shoot. That's just me.)

11. Look for a hiring event. Some conferences have a specific job fair, guest speakers or free resume review. Be sure to drop by. They often have industry-specific recommendations that can really help shorten your job hunt.

12. Meet the business development team. Who are the people minding the stations on the exhibitor's floor? Most of the time, those are the members of the business development team. They are often prior military themselves so you might already know them. The good thing is that they are usually extroverts who want to talk, because it is boring for them to be standing around doing nothing.

13. BYOX. Bring your own exit strategy. When attending a conference, conversations are often short. Or you wish they were short. If you attend the event with another person from your office, or with a friend who is going to transition in the next year or two, you can use each other as an exit strategy. "It's been great talking to you, but I need to catch up with Rachael."

14. Carry a business card. For people who like business cards, bring your business card. It is good to have one when asked.

15. Connect young. Business cards can seem old to young people or to those who consider themselves super hip. The easiest way to link digitally on your phone is with LinkedIn. Download the LinkedIn app before the conference. If you wait to do it at the conference, you can't always be sure of the Wi-Fi.

Here is how to do it:

  • From the bottom of your home page, click "My Network." A blue circle with a plus sign will pop up at the bottom of the page. Click it.
  • A QR code will pop up. Click the "Scan QR code" box. You can either use this QR code to share your new contact via their camera app. Or you can send it to them.
  • You can use your camera app to scan their QR. Click the yellow "LinkedIn" bar, and you are friends for life. Or at least connected. Sooooo easy.

16. Don't work old. Are you good on your phone? Post or tweet about the event on social media and tag the conference a few times. That is a good way to encourage event organizers and reach the other half of the workforce in Defense. Leads don't always come from people who are senior to you.

17. Leave your impostor demon at home. During your transition years, it is common to have thoughts like, "I don't belong here." Or, "Everyone else knows each other." Or, "No one will want to hire me." Just because you have the thought does not make it true. During the job hunt, impostor syndrome is expected. Some researchers found seven out of 10 adults experience impostor syndrome during their career. Don't let it come with you to the conference. You are the real deal.

18. Shoot me your resume. The words you want to hear most at an industry conference are: Shoot me your resume. If you have a resume ready, great. Send it right away.

If you don't have it yet, or you are still months or even years away from getting out of the military, you can say, "I'm still pretty far out. Is it OK if I send it when it is ready?" They always say yes.

If you are less than six months away from separation or retirement, use the request to light a fire under yourself and finish it. Our FREE Blast Start Resume master class is designed to help you finish your resume in one hour or less.

19. Follow up. Going to a conference is like buying a year's worth of seeds. If you don't plant them, water them and feed them, nothing will grow. Follow up your efforts by first sending out the resumes people wanted. Then message them on LinkedIn and say it was nice seeing them in person. Comment when those people post to LinkedIn. Ask whether there is anyone else you need to talk to.

Professional conferences are a great way to get a year's worth of networking done in a day. Pick the methods that will work best for you and keep moving forward to your next high-impact job.

Jacey Eckhart is's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website Reach her at

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Transitioning military, veterans and spouses may be qualified for the job, but they are missing the secrets of civilian hiring. Find out everything you need to know with our FREE master class series, including our next class. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.

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