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If you’re just getting ready to transition, or are already in the middle of it, chances are you’re focused on getting a job. Maybe you’re nervous enough about leaving what you’ve known in the military that you’ll be happy to take any job that has the right salary or location. But don’t forget that after you’ve transitioned, there’s a career to think about, whether it’s in one type of work until retirement, or following your passion wherever it takes you. Here’s how to navigate the civilian job world to build a career you love.
Decide what’s important to you and your family, if applicable. This is probably the hardest part, and honestly it’s not something most transitioning veterans get around to before they leave military service. Let’s face it: career is relatively simple in the military. You do what you’re told and go where you’re assigned, and if you don’t like a particular job or station, you have at most three years to suffer before you get something else. Also, military careers usually come with certain “wickets” you need to hit — certain schools, or job assignments. Eventually, you’ll get to staff NCO or field grade or warrant officer, and then retire.
There are similar career progressions in the civilian world, but they’re harder to find for someone coming from a military background. And transition complicates the picture because it inserts concerns about where you are going to live, which jobs are going to be best, or whether you go to any college. So for those reasons, reflection on how you want to live your life as a civilian is usually something that occurs in the background.
Once you have fully transitioned, however, it’s easier to see where you want to go. Are you happy in your current job? Is there a future in it for you? Maybe you aim to become some kind of senior manager or technician. Or perhaps you look at your company executives and decide that, after all, you want to get a college degree. Or maybe you decide you want a total career change to get to a better place for your family. Setting your sights on goals like that help you determine the civilian “wickets” you need to hit to get there.
Figure out how to get to your goals. This is pretty straightforward. It mostly involves research and paying attention to those who are farther along than you. Sometimes, the next step forward in your company requires some education. If so, maybe it’s time to leverage those benefits at the local technical college. But don’t forget to tell your company your aspirations and ask if they’ll invest in you by helping with tuition. Many companies have education initiatives for their employees and welcome someone with initiative and drive. Don’t make the mistake, though, of treating them like a bank. Expect them to demand you still contribute to the company by working a certain amount, and make their financial support contingent on you succeeding in your studies (usually by achieving a certain grade point average).
If the next step is a certain title or position, tell the appropriate person you’re interested and ask what you need to do to get there. Oftentimes you’ll be given extra responsibilities, or certain performance goals to accomplish, before they’ll move you up. Or, if you’re in a company that doesn’t have a lot of room above you (which is common in smaller companies with established workforces, or with union workers), then maybe you begin looking for a similar position with upward mobility.
And if your chosen career requires a full college degree (graduate, undergraduate or associate), it’s time to start researching benefits, colleges and starting applications.
Don’t take a career step back unless it’s absolutely necessary. One red flag for any recruiter is seeing someone’s career backslide, say from a supervisory position to a regular employee position. Usually that indicates that you got demoted because you failed or because you made a critical mistake. Try to avoid job hopping backwards, career-wise, even if you’re tempted by a better location or (as sometimes happens) better pay.
There are a few times where this is acceptable, however. If you’re faced with some kind of personal need, like taking care of a family member, that requires you to go to a certain place, you can explain taking a career step back in the future. Employers will certainly understand that, though they will likely check your references to see if that’s true. Also, you can transfer from a smaller company to a larger one as long as the backslide is not significant. For example, you can go from a supervisor in a smaller company to a “lead person” in a larger one because the responsibilities are similar. That’s a good career move, actually, because you’re presumably pursuing more responsibility by moving to a larger company. But be careful! Moving from a supervisory position in a small company to a regular technician in a large company is a large step backwards and will raise questions of why you moved so far down the career ladder.
Maintain a presence in the job market. The obvious advantage to this is that you can monitor job openings in your area for new opportunities to build your career. But by keeping up an online presence on sites like LinkedIn and Indeed.com and adding accomplishments to your profile as you get them, you increase your chances of receiving a cold call. Also, by looking at your contacts’ profiles, you can expand your knowledge of what’s possible, and how to get there. It’s easy to ask a discreet question about your ambition to someone who’s perhaps a little ahead of you. Just be careful – some companies don’t like it if they find out you’re trolling for other jobs.
Keep the career conversation open. It’s normal for your goals to change as your life does. Whether your “dream career” turns out to be less than you expected and you discover something you like more, or you get married and start a family, your desired career will develop over time. So keep returning to the question of, “Where do I want to go next?” The answer, though it may change over time, will help you build a career that you love.
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