Top 10 Things I Learned Transitioning from the Military


It’s been a little over 12 years since I last put on the uniform of a U.S. Navy Sailor and stepped off a military installation for the last time, but still remember vividly the immediate weeks after my separation.  Over the course of several articles I’ll be talking more specifics about tips and tricks I’ve learned over the 12 years to share my knowledge and experience in hoping this helps other veterans transition into the workforce, but I want to start off with a list of the top 10 things that hit me in those weeks. 

For some background, I enlisted as an Electronics Technician and served a little over four years in that capacity repairing electronic communication equipment.  I thought I would always be a techie, and serve a long and full military career retiring after 20 years.  Life flipped upside down and after having a back injury and I could no longer serve, so I got out unexpectedly a little after 4 years of service.  I learned about the human resources profession towards the end of my career, so I wanted to focus on an HR career once I got out.  In addition to learning that swearing like a Sailor in the civilian sector is frowned upon (especially being in HR!), here are the top 10 things that struck me:

1.       Finding a job post military is hard. Resume building, cover letters, online applications, job profiles, social media, networking, interviewing, skills assessments; all very time consuming and confusing to anyone not use to it.

2.       Military trade skills don’t always translate to the civilian sector.  Military soft skills – leadership, grit, determination, perseverance, and honor do -- regardless of job.

3.       Bills can be expensive and add up. Uncle Sam paid for three square meals a day and a roof over my head along with an annual allowance for uniforms.  It’s a shocker once you get out, unemployed and have bills to pay. Financial management and education is key – go out and learn everything you can about money management.

4.       Health insurance isn’t free. Again, I use to go anytime and anywhere I wanted. Not the case as a civilian. What’s a deductible and dental insurance has maximum annual limits?!

5.       No one is responsible for your career, your financial future, or your success but you.

6.       Exploratory interviews are useful. Back to point #2; a lot of skills don’t transfer. Seek careers that interest you, and talk to people who are in them to learn more.

7.       Networking is vital. It can be virtual (think phone calls, skype and social media) or in person. The best $3 investment you can make is treating someone to coffee to learn about them & their job.

8.       Careers aren’t laid out. In the military you know you go from enlisted ranks E1 thru E9, or officers O1 thru O10. Other than some government employees (on the GS scales for example), careers aren’t laid out as cleanly in most organizations.  The bad news is there’s no clear path for you.  The good news is you can create your own.

9.       Workplace mentality goes from collaborative, comradery and mission-based with a higher purpose (service and protection of Country) in the military, towards individualistic and competitive in the private sector.  Not that people aren’t collaborative in the civilian sector, but it’s a different mindset.  SHRM’s Director of Social Engagement and veteran Andrew Morton write’s a good piece here on SHRM about going from “We Will to At-Will employment”.

10.   There’s no structure. I wore a uniform and shiny black boots every day for over 1,500 days, knew what time my meals were and what I needed to do every hour of the day. When you get out; you have plenty of choices, have to dress yourself (preferably with a different shirt every day!) and figure out how to structure your day. Again, Andrew wrote an excellent piece with one of my favorite video clips about lessons learned from the cereal aisle. I can only imagine how career veterans feel.

11.   Bonus one! Leverage and take advantage of your experience with relocation. If you aren’t tied to a location once you get out, continue to move. It’s hard for many to even move 20 miles for a new job. Your experience and familiarity with relocation will many more doors for you. 

So there you have it.  Some big eye openers once I got out of the military and some things to look out for if you are a transitioning veteran.  If you are a hiring manager or HR specialist looking to hire a veteran, keep these things in mind as you can help ease this transition. 



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