Military Retirees: How To Take Control Of Your Career Transition

January 2004


Randall Scasny

Every year about 200-300 thousand service members separate from the U.S. armed forces, according to various studies I've read. Military retirees are an important segment of this annual "new" veteran population.

How successful are retirees in bridging a lifetime of military job experience into civilian careers?

I'm not familiar with any studies that examine this precisely. But historically veterans have done pretty well in the job market, achieving lower unemployment rates than average. According to the Population Resource Center, only 3.2 percent were unemployed in 1999, lower than non-veterans (3.7 percent).

Through my own personal contacts and knowledge, I'd say that military retirees are some of the most sought after job candidates.

They have a lot of experience in many different areas: technical, supervision, training, management, administration, etc. And many of them have the coveted top-secret, security clearances that are essential to be considered for the most attractive, well paid, hard-to-fill government or defense industry jobs.

Those retirees who do have job-hunting problems either (1) do not have the "hot job" skills of the moment, (2) have not communicated their job skills properly so a civilian employer can understand them, or (3) have moved "back home" to areas of the U.S. where their expertises are just not in great demand.

I frequently receive emails from military retirees who are having employment or job search problems.

Their story is common one: "I'm having trouble getting a job. I've been looking for a year. I tried the newspapers and went to my state's employment office and searched their database. I got no results and found MilitaryHire and read your articles. Can you help me?"

They usually don't know where to start. After a few emails, and a few suggestions by myself, they ask for some help with their resume and that's about all.

Rarely do they ask me, "What's the secret of succeeding? How do I get a handle on this job hunt?"

I usually correct them at this point.

"You are not hunting for a job. You are making a major career transition."

Seeing the difference between a job-hunt and a career transition is an important first step for military retirees with job problems.

Most job-hunts are lateral career moves. A job-hunter seeks a similar position in a similar-kind of company in a similar industry. He does this because he knows his skills will be the most competitive. Why? He reasons that with his experience the employer can expect to invest very little in him before he "comes up to speed" and begins producing revenue directly (by closing new customer sales) or indirectly (by performing work associated with customer sales).

A career transition, on the other hand, is quite different.

When a job-hunter is in a career transition he is taking his existing job skills and tries to market or "package" them for a different kind of organization (from the military service in this case) in a different kind of industry in a different kind of position. (There are no Army lieutenants in the private sector, but there are middle managers. There are no Navy Chiefs in the private sector as well, but there are senior product support specialists.)

What this means is that the military career transitioner ends up competing against simple job hunters who have industry experience, contacts, etc. It's one extra hurdle to overcome for retirees.

But that's just the beginning of the story. Once a retiree understands he is in a career transition, he must take control of it. Why?

Military careers are controlled by the system while "civilian" careers are controlled by the individual, in response to the everchanging marketplace.

Herein lies the problem for many military retirees: 100 percent control of their careers is not something they had to do over the past 20 years in the service of our country.

How can a military retiree take control of his or her career transition?

By working with vets, I've found the process requires them to address four issues:

Focus Your Career Transition

The "focus" problem pops up because military retirees have just too many job skills! I know this sounds like a peculiar declaration. But in the military, all these skills worked to the retirees' advantage. Military service requires you to wear many "hats," so to speak.

The private sector, however, hires "skills" to satisfy business needs; they always hire specialists.

Sure, they say they want employees who are multi-tasking, multi-skilled and talented, but one would rarely see a candidate hired with 10 years of managerial experience for a technical troubleshooter job, which is exactly what several military retirees I've worked with want to do. They'll never get hired. Why? They would be overqualified.

To avert these kinds of problems, a military retiree should give his career transition a focus.

For instance, take this retiree. He emailed me a few months back:

"I am presently working as a Navy contractor doing technical writing. I am very proficient with Microsoft WORD, PowerPoint, Excel, PaintShop Pro, and good in Microsoft Access. I am seeking a job similar to what I do now but with an outside the government company such as Motorola, Bell Helicopter (hopefully Texas). I have no problem with travel or extended hours."

Is there anything wrong with this job objective? On the face of it, no. (Most employers would be pleased to read he is willing to live anywhere. In fact, they would consider him rare indeed. Most job hunters are not so open-minded.)

The problem I see with his loose job objective is it brings up more questions than answers. What does he want to do? What does he like to do? What can he do for the organization? For our customers? Why does he want to leave the company he is working for now? Is there a problem? Does he have a problem? Is he serious, that is, will he live anywhere?

Let's retool his objective in the following manner:

"I'm seeking work as a technical writer where I can leverage my expertise in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, PaintShop Pro, and Microsoft Access to improve customer satisfaction through easy-to-read product documentation for a consulting company in the technology industry, preferably located in Texas."

We get a clearer picture of who this job candidate is, what he is looking for, and what he can do for an employer with this focused objective. Plus, it answers all the important questions.

Remember, you are not talking to your detailer or billet assigner. You are communicating with recruiters or employers who (1) don't know you, (2) have very specific needs and (3) have very little time to size you up.

Perform a Skills and Qualifications Inventory

Several months ago, a military retiree emailed me seeking help. He is a gas turbine specialist. He sent me three versions of his resume as well as a job that he wanted to apply for. I skimmed his resumes and spent some time reading the job ad.

It was for a business development manager for aircaft (turbine) maintenance in Korea. The company basically wanted to start up a maintenance organization abroad and was looking for that rare individual who could pull it off.

At first look, I thought this guy was the man for the job. He had many years of turbine maintenance experience and he had actually lived in Korea, which I thought was a plus.

Then I noticed the position required fluency in the Korean language. I went back to his resumes. He had lived in Korea for a long time but the resume did not say he spoke Korean.

I emailed him back and told him I thought he was qualified for the job, that is, if he spoke Korean. So, I asked him bluntly: "Do you speak Korean?"

He emailed me back, saying "Forget that job but I still want your help." I've never heard from him again.

There is a moral to this story that I find misses some military retirees. The moral is you cannot apply for jobs where you are only partially qualified. If you are, you must fill in your skill gaps prior to applying for a job. If you do not, and apply anyway, you will not be competitive and, generally, will not be interviewed for the position.

This anecdote exposes an important difference between the military's and the private sector's philosophies of employee acquisition.

The military takes talented but untrained "raw" recruits, trains them, and places them in positions to obtain experience. Over the course of a career, they become the experts.

The private sector, on the other hand, seeks applicants who fit their precise job qualifications already, that is, they are the experts. (If they can avoid training them, they costs time and money.)

With the advent of the Internet, employers can afford to be choosier about whom they select because they can tailor their searches for applicants with an exact-skills fit.

But it's easy to understand why our military retiree in the previous example felt he was qualified for the job despite the fact he did not speak Korean.

He assumed that his vast technical experience would get his foot in the door. Any of his gaps could be filled through employer training, right? Wrong. It's a false assumption.

To avert applying for jobs that you are partially or not qualified for, you should perform a job skills inventory. This is a fancy appellation for sitting down with a piece of paper and pen and answering this simple question: What tasks am I qualified to perform?

You may want to create 4 major headings--Technical, Supervision, Training and Management--and answer the question for each heading. Be as specific as possible.

This inventory can be useful when you begin applying for jobs. Compare an employer's job qualifications with your skills inventory. If there is a match, go for it! If you have some skill gaps (that is, you are partially qualified), read the next section below.

Address Your Skills Gaps

Skill gaps are one of the major reasons why job candidates are not selected for job interviews. Yet, they are the easiest to deal with in a career transition. Skill gaps are always eliminated through education and training.

Yet, I can think of five retiree resumes I've reviewed that did not list any education other than military training courses (nor did they explain what was learned in these courses in simple, lay person's language).

A couple of them just forgot to put it on their resume. One did not even have an Education section on his resume! When I asked him about it, he would not answer me directly. It took five versions of his resume to pull out of him the military training courses he completed. I'm not even sure he is a high school graduate!

I'm not sure why I see a lack of formal education on some military retiree resumes. I can understand the "lack of time" excuse to some extent. Overseas deployments, hazardous duty, and wartime service are no places for furthering one's formal education. You have better things to do.

But I don't think it's a lack of time alone because some military retirees do have college degrees, some even have masters degrees.

I really think it is a belief that one's experience is the primary reason why someone is hired and education is not important, especially after 20 years of job experience. This too is a false assumption.

In Chicago where I live, there are four universities--University of Chicago, Loyola University, Roosevelt University and Robert Morris College--who offer night or weekend, college programs for non-traditional students (older students). The courses are packed!

Most people make the sacrifices of time and money to pursue more education to qualify for a better job. In the technology field, they take courses just to keep their current jobs.

I have an old friend who is a very successful computer salesman. He's worked for his company for 16 years. Due to upcoming retirements in management, the company told him that if he is interested in a sales manager job, he better start earning a Masters in Business Administration. Grudgingly, he did.

I have two degrees. The first one I completed in the Navy while I was on shore duty at Great Lakes Training Center. I graduated from Western Illinois University (WIU). They awarded me about two years of college credit for my Navy training and job experience; the rest of the degree I completed through correspondence courses or by attending local colleges like DeVry Institute of Technology or Northeastern Illinois University and then transferred the credit back to WIU.

When I wanted to enter the writing/publishing industry, I went back to college again to earn a writing degree.

No one says going back to college in your 30s or 40s is easy. But it is necessary for most people to advance in their own career transitions.

Here's what another vet thought about going back to college:

"I am a degreed Mechanical Engineer who went back to college at the age of 43. [Going back] for the most part emphasized how old I was when I had more life experience than some of the professors. Although I was able to relate to the professors better than the younger students, I realized that I was in a young person's world and was trying to do what I should have done 20 years ago. The light in this seemingly dark story is that upon graduation I was able to seek jobs that were out of my younger classmates grasp solely due to the experience I already had coupled with a brand new degree."

Education plays an important role in the job candidate selection process as well.

For example, if a military contractor is searching a database for specific skills on a Weapons system, and you have that experience, you're resume will likely pop up on a database search.

But what if one of the requirements of that job is a degree in computer technology? Depending on what keywords an employer uses, you may not pop up on a search.

Your Education also tells a job interviewer that you are a knowledgeable person who can relate to all kinds of people, like customers.

In my first post-Navy job, I recall the interviewer never asking me one technical question. He noted that I was a college graduate. And then he asked me what I liked to do in my off-hours.

During an office holiday party, after I was hired, I asked him about why he asked about my hobbies and no tech questions. He told me: "I knew you could do the job. I was concerned how you would relate to customers. If I could relate to you, my customers would. That's why I hired you."

Employers want to hire the best. Education matters to them. It should matter to you.

Begin Your Career Transition At The Right Time

I had a military retiree email me who was separating from the Army in six months. He asked me if it was too early to beginning applying for jobs. He said, "I don't want to spoil my chances."

Since I believe, for the right job candidate, everything is negotiable in the hiring process, I always think it's never too early to start looking.

But I quizzed him about his odd question. He told me that everyone he knows says that you should start looking for a job no earlier than 3 months from separation.

I quoted him the most recent study on the length of job-hunts that claimed the average one lasts 4 months. I also told him I know some qualified people who have been unemployed for a year. I told him "so much for the scuttlebutt and I'd start looking now!"

I would not expect most military retirees to know this fact: people are always looking for a job. It's a free market place and good workers are always looking for a better job opportunity. Employers know it. They also know that if they do not reward star performers they will lose them.

I've developed the following rules of thumb about the length of job hunts to help vets gauge how long their hunts will be:

When should a military retiree start his career transition?

I really think it should began at the start of your final enlistment contract. Yes, I'm saying 2-4 years from your retirement separation date.

I can hear everyone scream, "Man, are you serious!

Yes. Here's why.

Every job-seeking veteran must answer four questions to make the leap from the military to a civilian job:

These are big questions. They can't be answered in three months. And if you do not give yourself adequate time to investigate and find the answers, your career transition will become a matter of luck at best; at worst, it becomes an option of what is available.

Go to a job support group several years from separation. Listen to what active job hunters are going through. Better yet, spend the $50-100 for a consultation with a legitimate career counselor. Use the four big questions as the benchmarks of the consultation. You will learn a lot.

Try looking for a job several years before you separate! Learn how it feels. Try to get some interviews. If you get them quickly, you'll do okay. If not, you have to find out why. More than likely it's the result of skill gaps. And you have a few years to fill them.

Good Luck In Your Career Transition!


Note: These references are links to articles or websites I've discussed in this article.

All opinions, advice, statements or other information expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily express the opinions of or the publisher.

Copyright 2003 Randall Scasny. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.