Transitioning from active military service to a civilian career is one of the most difficult but important tasks any servicemember will face. There is no easy or singular path to gaining new employment or pursuing the education and training that lead to a new career. Like all of your military service, it requires planning and logistical support.
Successful transition to the career path is now your mission.
Many services are offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it’s usually best to call or make an appointment for any service you want to use. As we all know, they can be a little slow on the paperwork, so don’t forget to look at other federal, nonprofit and community groups for help with your new life.
One great thing about Americans and American businesses is that many are willing to help you continue your working life and find continuous success after military service. Most people you meet will be thankful for your service and very willing to show their gratitude.
That said, civilian life can be as much work as military life, just with more options for what you wear to work.
Education Versus Experience
As you leave the service life and look for civilian guidance, you’ll find as many opinions as possible about whether it’s best to seek out education or employment experience. All-in-all, it’s up to you.
One of the best pieces of advice we can offer on the subject is to do your homework. Look at the current economy, the employment rate and lists of the most in-demand jobs in the country. If your skillset matches those in-demand jobs, you’re likely in a good position. If your skills don’t fit and you don’t have an undergraduate degree, it may make sense to look at what school and training can offer.
If you know the kind of work you want to do, research available positions and pay particular attention to their requirements. Remember that your military experience often counts as work experience, but not all employers will view it as specific experience in your field. If you became an engineer while in the service, it may be a smart route to go to college and obtain an advanced degree in your field to better show your skills.
In many cases, colleges offer scholarships for veterans and like to accept vets into their programs. Vets have a good work ethic from day one, and the better you do after getting a degree the better it reflects on the college that trained you.
At the end of the day, you want a good career that pays a decent salary now and has the potential to rise enough for you to take care of your family. It’s up to you to decide the best route to take to make that dream a reality.
Learn the G.I. Bill
Today’s Post-9/11 G.I. Bill provides a lot of benefits to military veterans. Perhaps the most important one for you to consider now is the tuition reimbursement through the VA. The longer you served and how you were discharged from service effect how much you can use the tuition reimbursement.
Once you determine if you qualify, meet with a college advisor or VA advisor to go over exactly what the bill covers. Many servicemembers learn too late that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill provides funding for items such as books and even housing. This depends on the degree you pursue plus the school you attend, so it makes sense to discuss your thoughts with an advisor at the colleges you want to attend.
As a general rule, the bill covers full in-state tuition for public universities, colleges and degree-granting programs, but doesn’t necessarily cover private schools or the full cost of out-of-state tuition. The VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program may pick up some of those uncovered costs if your school is a partner with the VA.
Tuition paid through the G.I. Bill is given directly to the school you attend, so its staff will be more than willing to help you out. Picking between multiple programs can seem like a tough decision, but one being fully covered by the G.I. Bill can be a pretty quick determining factor.
Another great thing about the G.I. Bill is that you can add programs to the list of approved training. Your State Approving Agency can give you special permission for job training or specialized education, such as some flight schools, and may cover this as an in-state tuition program.
Understanding the Career Path
First and foremost you’ll want to view your next steps as part of a career path, much like your service path. The goal for successful transition to civilian life and work is seeking a long-term career with growth opportunities, not just a job.
Careers for veterans after the service will look very different than what you’re used to. That’s OK, because there are many groups that want to help you out. The main thing to remember is that, even if it looks different, you want the same trajectory for your career that you had in the military.
Even if you’re not yet ready to jump fully into the career path, creating a career plan can make sure that the initial job you choose helps move you towards a long-term career. Employers in the civilian world are fond of asking “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Unlike the military, there’s no clear progression in many civilian jobs. Creating a career goal that says what you want to do and where you’d like to be is a great way to define what you’re after and not get caught off-guard by a common interview question.
Discover Your Skills
Did you really like your last job?
If you want to continue in something like that, you’ll need to translate your skills into business language. Were you a radio chief who specialized in amphibious deployment support? While you won’t find many civilian jobs that need reliable communication ahead of an insertion or nighttime raid, you may find a telecommunications company that needs reliable engineers with emergency-preparedness planning and advanced-systems integration capabilities.
You may not be deploying communications in a hostile zone, but you could look for careers staging equipment and setting up communication redundancies before a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes.
Figuring out how to do this can be difficult, especially if you’re retiring from the service, because industry jargon has changed since you left the civilian workforce. A bit of advice for your entire job search: Drop as much jargon as possible, it only gets in the way.
There are a variety of services available through the VA and other organizations to help servicemembers learn the right phrases and terms to best tailor their skills to the civilian job market. One of the best resources around is the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Resource Center that’s sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. O*NET has a “My Next Move for Veterans” section that allows you to search for jobs similar to your Military Occupation Classification. It will show you the keywords for the civilian counterpart to your service career and offer a look at what industries have that position.
You’ll likely find many services that prefer vets and are glad to honor your service.
The federal workforce often gives veterans a preference for new positions and positions that interact with the military. Sometimes this preference will be obvious, such as a job posting listing military experience as a requirement or as a preferred candidate characteristic.
Other times, you may fill out a job application for a federal position through USAjobs and see no direct correlation to your military service. Don’t let that fool you. Federal government jobs all provide you with a section to post information about your military service and the recruiters and human resources talent at these agencies know exactly what your service means.
These recruiters will understand the difference between a sergeant and a first sergeant and have enough experience with veterans to evaluate different training, stations and other experiences.
For federal work, it is best to develop a list of your skills and careers that relate to them. After building a list of potential jobs and titles, research the agencies you would like to work for and the locations you would like to live in. Most careers for veterans will fit well with multiple agencies and locations, so apply to any jobs that meet your skills and your preferences.
One great thing for disabled veterans is that the VA offers a lot of help and resources. Disabled veterans will need to get a form from the VA to officially note that their disability is connected to service, but once you obtain this you can also request help from the VA officer in terms of filling out applications or accessing special tools for disabled vets.
As part of your search, you should also look for veteran-friendly companies in your area.
Your search can start with websites and services that bring together a variety of employers willing to hire veterans or specific searches for the companies themselves. In January of 2013, Walmart announced plans to hire 100,000 veterans over five years, one of the biggest announcements of its kind but by no means the only company to make big hiring goals.
Internet searches are your best tool to find announcements in your area, but you can also call your local chapter of the VA, contact any bases in your area, and reach out to TV or radio stations. Many companies with veteran-hiring programs will advertise them, so contacting the stations directly can help you quickly build a list.
Services such as the Veterans Today Network offer forums where members actively discuss both existing opportunities and their experience with company plans to hire veterans. This can help you weed out companies that may have signed a veteran pledge to get good press but don’t understand the special qualities and characteristics of servicemembers.
The World of Networking
Networking has become a buzzword and it means now what it meant in the platoon: Relationships are everything.
The Internet has taken over for finding jobs, applying to them and for companies building a list of candidates. However, all of that is very impersonal and can’t quite get across exactly who you are. Even in the computer age, this lack of personality on the Web also means that companies who get recommendations from existing employees give those recommendations more credence.
Your job is to expand the unit and add in friends, family members, other servicemembers and anyone you meet professionally. Career fairs for vets offer a great resource since many will have booths for professional organizations. The more you speak with these groups, the better you’ll feel about the social part of an interview or an interaction in your class.
Groups for servicemembers can also help you get acclimated to what’s appropriate and what isn’t in the workplace. Lots of jokes that went over well in your unit won’t play out on the job, especially because you’ll be coming up against a wider variety of personalities.
Networking groups can also help you get in to some programs that have a more selective process. It’s not always easy to get references when leaving the service, especially if your lieutenant just got shipped off to a new location. These groups can help you build the referral and reference network that may be needed for different applications, or they may know someone who has gone through a program you’re interested in.
Networking isn’t going to get you a job tomorrow, but it can help you prepare for a career and build long-term skills that you’ll use for the rest of your civilian life.
Whether you are choosing to pursue school or the career path, you should evaluate yourself alongside your skills. Are you ready to make the transition to the civilian life? Do you have any unresolved concerns that creep up on you and make you bristle during daily activities?
More wounded servicemembers leave the battlefield and make it home than ever before. This means we have wounded men and women coming home and trying to reintegrate into a social environment where tensions may flare up but violence is uncommon.
As we’re often told, the wounds of war are not always visible. There are some scars that we carry with us and try to keep away from the world. Post-traumatic stress disorder is real and each servicemember needs to have an honest look and discussion to see if PTSD, physical injuries or any other war-related problems may keep them from entering the workforce or returning to school for the time being.
If you feel comfortable entering the civilian lifestyle all at once, it’s still best to seek out veterans and support groups in your area. These groups often offer the opportunity just to sit around and talk about whatever is going on, to play a game of basketball, or to grab a bite and talk about tips for the latest Call of Duty game. Camaraderie doesn’t go away when you leave the service, and these groups can help you deal with any stress you might not have expected.
We never leave a soldier behind, even if they’ve already come home.