Originally posted Feb 2017. Updated Feb 2018.
Perhaps the most challenging part of a military career—other than that first few weeks at Basic Training or OCS—is the preparation for and execution of your transition from the military to the civilian world. There are many public and private sector resources available to you to assist with your transition—but most are there for you after you have left the military and not during the preparation process. This can put you into a tail-chase that seems like you cannot run fast enough to keep up with your goals for accomplishing your post-military career. But … FEAR NOT! There is help!
Transition Planning: When, Why, and How
Much like the myriad career paths available to our service members during their careers, there is no “one size fits all” cookie-cutter solution for transition. There are differences as well if you are heading toward a known retirement date, you are deciding whether to re-enlist, or if unforeseen circumstances are bringing you rapidly toward separation (such as a medical discharge). In each of these cases, the time available to begin preparations for the transition to civilian life varies.
Ideally, give yourself at least 18 months prior to retirement or separation to start the transition process. Obviously, this is most manageable for service members who are approaching a planned retirement date; however, it may also apply to those who are planning to re-enter civilian life after their current enlistment ends. For those going through the process of medical evaluation, the timing factor is one of many uncertain variables that you will have to manage during the evaluation process. Whichever category you fall into, an axiom borrowed from the financial world applies directly to your preparations for transitioning to the civilian world:
“If you have not started investing for your future already, the best time to start is today.” Simply replace the word investing with the word planning.
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When you raised your right hand, took an oath, and became a part of the United States Armed Forces, you became a part of something that is greater than yourself, agreed to a new lifestyle, new rules, and new benefits. Many people find the military to be a rewarding way of life and remain in the military for a 20+ year career, while others choose to take the lessons learned from their experiences and re-enter civilian life after their enlistment obligation is completed. Some plan to serve for a career or a long-term enlistment and then find themselves transitioning because of medical or other unforeseen complications that leave them little time to prepare for their next career. Although the concept of transition is discussed in a relatively simple tone of expression, the reality is that there are many moving parts—both integrated and separate—that must be accomplished during and after your military career. Some of these processes include:
- VA medical assessment for potential VA disability benefits
- Post-military Tricare retiree benefits
- VA educational benefits (including GI Bill)
- Administrative paperwork
- DD-214 verification
- Training verification (i.e., service school and certifications)
- Service record copies
- Security clearance debriefs
… and others …
The current Transition Assistance Program (TAP) administered by DOD in conjunction with USDOL provides meaningful information and insight into the processes that service members will go through on a macro scale—in other words, processes that apply to a broad area of potential areas where Veterans may land to enjoy retirement or begin their next career. Although some people have expressed some level of disappointment with the program, going into it with the understanding that it is a foundational program providing widely applicable information will help you better understand the information that you gain in the program. It is highly recommended that you attend TAP 12-18 months prior to retirement or separation and then attend again 3-6 months prior. When you have decided your next landing zone after retirement or separation, you can begin exploring local area resources available to enhance your transition process.
You likely remember this from your time in the military—planning is everything. Before you start the process of actively pursuing your transition, draft a plan—even the outline for a plan—before you start. As you progress through your transition, you can update and revise the plan as you learn more about the area and industries that you have decided to target, as well as the progress you make along the journey to your civilian career or retirement.
The first step is to look at your career and identify the common characteristics that you may want to carry over into the civilian world, whether you plan on working for the government (public sector) or for a non-government business or entity (private sector). This will help constitute your repertoire of skill sets and talents that you bring to the civilian world. Don’t just focus on hard skills—soft skills such as management and leadership are very important to companies and organizations.
Once you have decided on your landing zone (the Phoenix, AZ metro area, for example), take a look at the industries that interest you—especially those in which you can use your already documented skills and experience. Are they hiring? What positions do they need? Salary and benefits? Most importantly—workplace culture? I recommend targeting 3-5 companies/organizations that most interest you and fit the parameters based on your research. Check out their profiles online—websites, LinkedIn, other social media—as well as news about the company/organization (such as the Phoenix Business Journal). A secret weapon that you may use once you identify a place or two that really interests you is to ask for an informational interview to find out more about the company—companies like to show interested parties their good side and foster greater interest in their products or services. In some ways, it is like them finding a qualified employee without having to pay a recruiter a finder’s fee!
An essential part of any career transition is having the appropriate, well thought-out information ready when you approach a hiring manager or recruiter. There are three main types of resumes you will want to have available. First, you will need a master resume. This one is just for you and will list all your accomplishments at every position and command with which you served. If you are transitioning after one enlistment, you may want to include positions held prior to your military service if they will show experience in the career you are pursuing. You should have at least 10 years of experience, or at least from age 18 (for those who enlisted after high school) or from college on. There are many types of resumes out there and not all of them work for all careers. For example, recruiters like to see the information that they need on the top half of the first page of a resume … and NO resume should exceed two pages, or into the shredder it goes.
Interviewing is critical to gaining your next career. This is where you will likely find challenges because of the differences between military and civilian organizational structures. The military is a vertical organizational structure with clear chains of command and rules that are observed and enforced more strictly than those in the civilian world. Civilian organizations have a more horizontal, collaborative structure with lines of authority that are neither as defined nor as strict as military chains of command. Civilians tend to have a mixture of both organizational models, with military contractors having more of the military model and purely civilian-focused companies using a predominantly horizontal model, with the concept of “command authority” residing at the C-Level (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO). The keys to interview success include:
- Dress appropriately (don’t wear your uniform, but wearing a lapel pin with your military service is acceptable)
- Be 5-15 minutes early, but never late
- Remember that the receptionist is your first interviewer—they will be asked for their opinion of you
- Have multiple copies of your resume—one for each interviewer
- Be ready to give a quick 15-30 second answer when asked, “So, can you tell us about yourself?” and don’t sound boastful or “all about you”
- Listen, take a breath and think, and then answer
- Always be honest—but not brutally so
- Have three questions ready to ask the interviewers at the end—one of them must be about company/organization culture (such as what is a normal day like working here?)
Make the interviewer(s) feel special—not just their company—always follow up with the interviewer(s) that day or no later than 24 hours after the interview with a nice email or written note to show your appreciation.
Who Can Help?
There are many resources available to you during transition. Once you have determined your landing zone, you can start reaching out. Here are some of the ones prominent in the Phoenix metro area (as well as other metros areas):
- Department of Labor TAP Program Guide: Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) Information
- AMVETS Service Center (important in getting ready for and scheduling your VA medical assessment)
- Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW): www.vfw.org
- American Legion: www.legion.org
- Disabled American Veterans (DAV): www.dav.org
- Military Officers Association of America (MOAA): www.moaa.org
- Air Force Association (AFA): www.afa.org
- Association of the US Army (AUSA): www.ausa.org
- Coast Guard Foundation: www.coastguardfoundation.org
- US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): www.va.gov
- Phoenix VA Health Care System: www.phoenix.va.gov
Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVER) and Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP)
For information on the nearest office to you, please check the following links:
- LVER: Go to https://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/108
- DVOP: Go to https://www.benefits.gov/benefits/benefit-details/106
- Both Programs’ Factsheet: Go to http://benefits.va.gov/vow/docs/LVER_DVOP_Factsheet.pdf
Handy Link and Phone Directory
In Closing …
The transition back to civilian life—and a civilian career—can be more challenging depending upon the length of your service because many things change over time—especially technology. Keep in mind that, just because you are leaving one family—your active duty/reserve/NG/ANG brothers and sisters—you will be joining an even larger family of Veterans who have served through every era of the last 75 years! We are still family and here to help one another reach goals and be productive. We have each others’ backs and are there to support and defend the same as when we stood up that day and raised our hand to take the oath. Call on us when you need us, walk into our establishment when you want to share a cool beverage with a friendly face that you may have never met; don’t walk the journey alone—we are here!