Career Transitions And The Road To War

They say the road to war begins the moment the previous battle ends.  Translation- It’s all about preparedness.

"Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead."  - General James Mattis, USMC

“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”
– General James Mattis, USMC

I may be in a growing minority of people who remember a peace time military.  Believe it or not, there was time when there were no constant deployments and multiple tours to kinetic environments.  Sure we went places and did things- but even then it was for exercises, not real world missions.  The primary focus was on preparing ourselves for war, because although while we didn’t know where or when we would be called upon to serve our country, there was really no debating the question of “if”. History has done a pretty good job documenting that.  Eventually we would have to go out and “do the business”, so we needed to be prepared.

Transitioning from a military career to a civilian career is much the same. At first a member of the military may not know when their service will end. Many, including me, joined the service to find direction in life. In 1994 I couldn’t  have told you what I would be doing after the military, I knew medicine had a lot options and was thinking about things like surgery technician, x-ray technician, etc., but I had no solid goal. Before the Navy I had attained a BA in Social Sciences, but I honestly had no idea what to do with it. As I searched for a career, I started to describe myself as being “knowledgeable, but not marketable”. I was smart but hadn’t discovered a passion for any particular line of work.  I suddenly knew the feeling of being thrust from  the safety of an organization (College) without a plan. Because of that, I promised myself, I would not get out of the Navy until I did something.

This is why the road to retirement begins at boot camp (or Officer Candidate School).  Even though I wouldn’t discover my passion for Human Resources until many years later,  I knew that, from the very beginning, I had to look for ways to set myself up for success.  I did this by not only documenting my military experiences, but also by ensuring that I kept up with the parallel career paths in the civilian sector. This way I knew not only how to document my experiences, but it also helped me identify the aspects of the HR profession that we don’t get a chance to perform in the military.  Knowing what I didn’t do showed me the areas in which I need to be proactive.

There is absolutely a cultural gap between the military and the civilian world and it can be a significant barrier to veteran employment.  It’s great that many organizations are seeking to find better ways of reaching out in an effort to attract qualified people.  The process need to work both ways, however.  Those of us leaving the military that can translate our experiences in civilian terms have a leg up .  This requires a little bit of research and we must admit that the true responsibility for our future employment  lies with us, not with the private sector.

All the tax breaks, federal hiring programs, and statements of support are really only designed to encourage organizations to seek us out as a group.  Getting  the job is up to us.  Nobody will hire us just because we are veterans. They will only hire us because they believe we will help their organization succeed.  It’s an HR fact that the greatest sin in hiring is not to have lost out on a good candidate, but to have hired the wrong candidate.  Imagine the concerns you would have bringing a civilian into your work space (or even someone from another service that did a similar job). No matter how smart they may be, you would probably still be concerned about how well they would fit into the culture of your organization.  Civilian organizations, particularly smaller ones without any veteran presence in their workforce, will have similar concerns.  If we accept the fact that we  need to be thought of as a “safe bet” in order to get hired, and not a “patriotic charity case” our chances for success will improve dramatically.

Below are some proactive things we can do throughout our military careers to help us bridge that gap when the time comes.

  • Start looking at job postings early in your career (years before you are thinking about transitioning).  You don’t need to do it every day at first, but even by doing this every so often, you can see what types of skills and certifications are generally required for certain positions.  You’ll probably also see new acronyms that may be unfamiliar to you, if so look them up.  All organizations have their own lexicon, you may find that it’s just a new way to describe what you already do.  Talking in the “native tongue” helps reassure prospective employers.
  • If you don’t know about something- learn about it.  Thanks to the internet, there is no excuse for not having a basic understanding of something. Speaking about a topic you don’t know about is a kiss of death.
  • Join/follow professional organizations early in your career.  The best thing I’ve done was to join the Society for Human Resource Management in 2005.  Although it costs me annual dues, staying abreast of HR issues for the past 8 years has kept me fluent in the “lingo”.  You can also follow organizations for free on social media.  Facebook can be good, LinkedIn is even better.
  • If you get the opportunity to attend civilian conferences as part of your job, make sure you interact with civilian organizations, as opposed to sticking to just other military people.  When you do, ask questions about how things work in their business.
  • Be engaged in your community.  Spending ten years at Camp Lejeune made me very insulated to the civilian world.  Moving to Maryland put me in contact with a much more diverse population.  As I interacted with them I have learned much more about what people know and don’t know about the military.  Learning this has enabled me to proactively address common misunderstandings.

It doesn’t matter if your job in the military has you working with satellite communications, on gas turbine engines, or in human resources, all professions continue to evolve.  It’s much easier to keep up with the civilian/professional world as you go, rather than trying to do a crash course at the last minute.  Too many people attend the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) only to learn what they should have already been doing.

Note: This post was partially inspired by a letter written by General James Mattis encouraging his subordinates to read and study books in preparation for battle.  I encourage you to read more about that here.


4 comments on “Career Transitions And The Road To War

  1. […] The best advice I can offer is to take control of your own career, and do so early.  It is my intention to go over the topics in the Department of Labor course with future blog posts because I believe they are spot on as far as establishing a transition plan.  I’d also love to start a dialogue with others getting out out, or who have recently gotten out because I believe we can all help each other succeed on the outside, just as we do on the inside.  Preparation to get out needs to start the day you get in. […]

  2. Byron says:

    Great article. I had some similar thoughts, but I think you put it better than I ever could. My 1stSgt used to tell me to prepare for a 20 year career, even if you’re not sure you’re going to stay in the military. I feel that the same goes for transitioning out of the military. I hope you don’t mind – I linked your article to my blog page –

  3. Stephen says:

    This is an excellent article! Like the game of chess, always think about the next two moves and advance yourself when permitted to stay in the game. It is even more important in the economy we live in today. Ask yourself what your discriminatory is when comparing to another potential candidate applying for a position of interest. Get certified and take the next steps to be the extraordinary selection. All the best, Stephen

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