I have heard the words “I wish I would have known” from veterans more times than I can count– particularly regarding civilian employment after service. It is why I created the Post-Military Professional in the first place. Veteran Roundtable will be an ongoing series, one that will share advice from service members that have “been there.”
This inaugural Roundtable features insights and advice about the transition to civilian employment from eight former active duty members of the US Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
These panelists represent diverse perspectives from a wide variety of career fields and backgrounds. You will find that some questions have vastly different responses. Your experiences will vary as well.
I am always looking for input from veterans from all branches and occupational specialties. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below, or on our Facebook page. If you would like to be interviewed for a future Roundtable, please drop me a line using this contact form.
For starters, tell us about your military career.
Alex – I was active duty for the first 10 years of service. I was in Supply and was a Military Training Instructor during that time. I joined the AZ ANG immediately after (in Supply) and have been there for the last 12 years. I am currently the Chief Enlisted Manager for the 161st LRS. I will retire next June.
Michael W. – I joined the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman in 1996 and spent as much of my career overseas as possible, the bulk of which was stationed with the Marine Corps. I was stationed in Okinawa, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico before attending Independent Duty Corpsman (IDC) School in San Diego. After that I went on to be stationed in Korea, Maryland, Bahrain, Philippines, Korea (again), and Bahrain (again) before my final duty station of Okinawa. I had no plans to retire, but at my nineteen and a half year mark, I got fed up with it all and submitted my paperwork. I retired as a Chief Petty Officer in February of 2016. I will note that I was single with no children for the entirety of my career.
Ameeta – I joined the Air Force in 2009 as a 2S0X1 (Material Management). I spent a total of 5 years on Active Duty. I separated for 2 years, and then commissioned as a Health Professions Officer into the Medical Service Corps.
Tim – My MOS was 6283 (fixed-wing aircraft safety equipment mechanic). I did a 6-year enlistment from 1994-2000. I worked on the EA-6B Prowler ejection seats, canopies, liquid oxygen system, heating/air conditioning/equipment cooking/cabin pressurization systems. I also held an aircraft turn qualification to run up the aircraft and check systems/maintenance. I was assigned to VMAQ-2 based out of MCAS Cherry Point, NC. We deployed often. During my time we deployed to Aviano AB Italy three separate times for conflicts in Bosnia/Serbia and finally for Operation Allied Force in 1999. From Italy I had a chance to go to Incirlik AB Turkey to assist another Prowler Squadron with a bunch of scheduled aircraft maintenance that they needed extra hands for. Even when stateside we deployed to places like Nellis AFB, MCAS Yuma, Puerto Rico, and 29 Palms for “mini-dets” ranging from 2-6 weeks at a time.
Avril – I entered the Air Force when I was 27, so I had a few years of work experience and a couple of degrees in music already. I was in the band for 12 years and really did love it. In addition to getting to play pretty much everyday, I also got the opportunity to learn other useful things, like how to be part of a team, how to manage people, and how to speak in public. I even learned a few things about graphic design and financial management. I enjoyed it but started thinking about leaving, because I wanted to learn more about the world around me. I wanted more say over my career and where I would live. I was also concerned about potentially starting a new career at my retirement age (which would have been 47 if I left at 20 years). I decided it would be best to get a jump on a new career sooner rather than later.
Sarah – I was a linguist in the Air Force for ten years. I first learned Serbo-Croatian in 2006, then Hindi in 2011, and finally Russian in 2015 (though I got out when I was ¾ of the way through the course). I spent time at Fort Meade, MD and JBSA-Lackland, TX, as well as going on a 6-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Michael G. – I was a forward observer with the 101st Airborne, attached to a scout reconnaissance team. Two tours in Iraq. I was active duty for 5 years.
Jerry – I spent the last 26 years on active duty. During that time, I was a member of the Air Force Band program and spent the last 2.5 years as a Superintendent at Scott Air Force Base. I go off of active duty the 1st of July.
What is your current occupation?
Alex – I work as an attorney in Phoenix, AZ.
Michael W. – After retirement I worked full-time as a scuba diving instructor in Okinawa for a year before moving to the Philippines where I’m working part-time as an instructor. Next month I’ll start a new job as a medical and diving consultant for a VIP security firm here in the Philippines.
Ameeta – I am currently a GS employee in Contracting. I am still in the Air Force Reserves based out of JB Charleston. I also own my own business where I assist buyers with their automotive purchases.
Tim – I am a Firefighter/Paramedic for the Pewaukee Fire Dept, having recently been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. I have been a firefighter in this department since January 2002.
Avril – My official title is Assistant Grants Management Specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC. I help deal with the processing of grants in the visual arts division, which encompasses the disciplines of visual arts, museums, design and creative placemaking, and media arts.
Sarah – I am currently a stay-at-home mom.
Michael G. – Imaging service engineer. I maintain and repair diagnostic imaging equipment (I fix x-ray machines).
Jerry – I am one week away from completing my MBA in Project Management! Once I am done, I plan on getting a PMP (project management professional) certification and becoming a project manager.
I tried to take a single distance learning course while I was deployed, but after our internet café was mortared on 3 separate occasions, I gave up on that. It did make for the best incomplete homework excuse ever. – Michael Gemignani
What steps did you take while still in the service to prepare for you for post-military employment?
Alex – While I was still in, I took advantage of Tuition Assistance and completed my Bachelors degree. I used my GI Bill to help pay costs for law school.
Michael W. – Two years before I retired I completed my scuba diving instructor course and worked part time at it until I retired. My original plan was to move to the Philippines right away and open a dive shop. I thought I had it all figured out until I moved here and decided that owning a shop was the quickest way to lose all my savings! I attended the mandatory transition assistance courses by the military, but they had little to do with moving overseas or the scuba diving realm.
Ameeta – The most important step I took was finishing my Bachelors and MBA while on active duty. This truly set me up for success with a solid foundation for work experience and education. Also, networking was huge for me. If I didn’t network while on active duty, I wouldn’t have found my GS career or Reserve position.
Tim – With our squadron’s busy deployment schedule, it was hard to find time to take college courses while on active duty. I thought when I was done with my enlistment I would go to school and get an A&P license/certification and work for an airline maintaining commercial aircraft. Then came 9-11. The airline industry went into a recession of sorts and was laying off technicians. When 9-11 happened, I had an immediate desire to re-enlist. I wanted to get in the fight. My wife shut down any hopes of re-enlisting, so I pursued a career as a firefighter/EMT. It would make me feel like I was making a difference. And it has and continues to do that.
Avril – First I really started thinking about what I wanted to do when I left and how I could set myself up for this. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I liked to do that wasn’t music and started looking at architecture and design programs, because I love good design. After doing a lot of research, I decided an urban planning program was what I really wanted to do. I researched programs and came up with a list and applied while I was still in the Air Force. I basically decided that if I was accepted, I would separate. If I wasn’t I would reenlist. I got accepted everywhere I applied, so there was my answer! I was able to use my GI Bill to live on while I started a new degree that I hoped would help me transition to a new career. I also had a fair amount of savings that I accumulated while in the AF, just so I would have a cushion.
Sarah – Unfortunately, not many. I took a few college classes and a couple CLEPS, but I didn’t earn my degree prior to getting out, and I’m still working on my Bachelor’s.
Michael G. – None. Our training and deployment tempo were too fast-paced to allow time for college courses. I tried to take a single distance learning course while I was deployed, but after our internet café was mortared on 3 separate occasions, I gave up on that. It did make for the best incomplete homework excuse ever. When I met with the out-processing counselor, he told me that there was no civilian equivalent to what I was doing in the military. So, two months prior to discharge, I enrolled in college.
Jerry – I started working towards my MBA almost 4 years ago. I went at night one class at a time and had to take several semesters off here and there due to the active duty schedule. I knew retirement was coming, and if I wanted to be able to make as much or more than I was currently making, I knew I would have to take steps to get prepared.
I left Active Duty believing that my military experience was worth a lot more than it really is. – Alex Brown
Was finding civilian employment a challenge? What hurdles did you run into?
Alex – Finding civilian employment wasn’t hard. Finding a job within my expectations was impossible. I left Active Duty believing that my military experience was worth a lot more than it really is. Employers considered my education, but when it came to experience, very few considered it because it didn’t fit their needs.
Michael W. – I was already working part time for a dive shop in Okinawa, and the owner wanted me to stay on full-time, so I already had that lined up. The hardest part was filing for the Japanese work visa. It involved 9 trips to Immigrations, and they would only give you one form at a time. It took two months to complete.
Ameeta – I wouldn’t say it was so much a challenge, but more nerve-wracking. I had set myself up for success, but there is always a fear that it won’t work out. I made sure not to separate until I had a firm job offer from my current employer.
Tim – When I initially got out of the Marine Corps, I was able to get a job at Derco Aerospace as a Quality Assurance Inspector. This was the first job I had applied for. I prepared a resume and interviewed. Getting the job was not difficult. It seemed like with my experience, they were willing to give me a shot. The pay was not bad, and the QA Dept at the time was filled with all military veterans. I worked with people from the Marine Corps, the Army, and the Air Force. It helped make the transition to civilian life a bit easier, as all my co-workers had gone through what I was going through and could offer me solid advice.
Avril – Finding civilian employment was definitely a challenge, though I accepted everything that seemed relevant to what I might want to do. I ended up doing a couple of part-time paid internships, a short independent contractor position at a startup, and a fellowship with a nonprofit that was funded by an organization meant to help veterans transition. I think the main hurdle I faced was that people didn’t know what to do with me. I had a new degree but more work experience than some of my classmates in the master’s program I had just finished. I limped along doing multiple part-time things for about a year after I completed my degree. I will say I did many interviews and several second interviews, so I think it was a matter of finding the right fit for a job.
Sarah – I started looking for a job about 6 months ago, and I’m afraid to say that I’m still looking.
Michael G. – No. I knew I wanted to work with technology. I chose this field because it had the best post-graduation employment rate. Between that and most companies preferring to hire veterans, finding employment was fairly easy. Biggest hurdle was putting up with the younger students.
Jerry – I can’t really answer this question yet since I haven’t really started look. I have sent out a few resumes just for practice and have gotten no response. For the kind of job I am looking for, I feel confident that once I can include the MBA and PMP certification on the resume, things will quickly change for the better.
I heard the transition would be hard, and I just didn’t believe it. – Avril Claytor
What do you know now that you wish you’d have known then?
Alex – I wish I knew how to swallow my pride and start over again. I am proud of my military service, but I wasn’t prepared to start over from the bottom. Civilian life was a hard slap in the face for me. I wasn’t going to step right into some management job and be important again. But I got over myself and everything turned out okay. One great thing the military teaches us is perseverance.
Michael W. – I think I could have planned things out a little better and saved more money. When you have disposable income you spend it like that, “Disposable!” I had way too many toys, most of which I no longer have a use for, and I was also taking vacations here and there. Now that I’m on a much-reduced budget, one of the hardest parts is resisting the impulse to just go out and buy whatever.
Ameeta – I think knowing all of the resources available to me would have helped me. Whether it was just going into the education office and asking questions, or talking to all the different offices around base that are there for career development. There are a vast amount of certificates that I could have obtained before separating, which I wish I would have.
Tim – I wish I had taken education more seriously during my time on active duty. I wish I would have found out earlier in my military career about educational opportunities that were available to me while on active duty.
Avril – I heard the transition would be hard, and I just didn’t believe it. I’m not sure if this is the sort of thing that you have to experience to believe or not. I think I did a lot of things right, but I really was not prepared for how long it took me to find a steady full-time job. They told us this in TAP, but I just didn’t believe it would be hard for me.
Sarah – I wish I had known how difficult it would be to go to school and be a mother at the same time. I thought I was busy when I was in with just work, but managing school work and a hyperactive toddler is much more time-consuming.
Michael G. – To have made more of an effort to go to the doctor more while I was in to get my injuries documented. A lot of wear and tear back then is starting to show, and most isn’t documented, because I was more focused on staying in the training pipeline and preparing for the next deployment. Or while on deployment, “sucking it up” to stay on missions rather than going to the medics.
Jerry – It is all about the certifications. I am happy I am getting the MBA, because it has exposed me to a lot of great information, but employers are looking for certifications. Get as many as you can relevant to what you are wanting to do.
Expect to be frustrated with civilians. – Tim Hetherington
What advice would you have for service members on the heels of a transition?
Alex – My advice would be to start reaching out about a year before ETS. Look into the school or career of your choosing and start making yourself eligible for that position. Being in the military doesn’t mean you have to wait to look for the next chapter. Start now.
Michael W. – If you know you’re getting out, start saving everything and limit your budget at least two years out, preferably longer. Resist those urges and save every penny!
Ameeta – My best advice is to knock out some education or certifications … and NETWORK! Networking works wonders. It’s all about who you know and the connections you’ve made.
Tim – Expect to be frustrated with civilians. Have a quality resume, printed on quality paper, or in a binder that you can leave with the interviewer. When interviewing for a job, RELAX. Try not to be overly rigid. Don’t overuse, or abuse, the word Sir or Ma’am. Throw one or two “Sirs” or “Ma’am’s” in and they will get the point. After that it gets old. For God’s sake, get a quality suit to interview in. It makes a difference. If a second interview is required, switch up the tie. Again, it makes a difference.
Avril – This sounds terrible, but I would say to just be prepared for it to be difficult. Have savings! Assume you might not get a job right away, and be open to opportunities, even if they might not seem relevant. Even when I was looking for a full-time gig, I made sure to do something everyday to get me there. It could be applying for a job, but maybe it’s just going out to meet people or researching opportunities.You should expect to take a few steps back. I’m not making as much money as I was when I was in the Air Force, but I feel secure, and I love what I’m doing. If I weren’t receptive to taking this position meant for someone with less experience, I might have overlooked this amazing opportunity.
Sarah – Get your resume settled before getting out. Keep track of everything throughout your career, rather than trying to remember everything at a later date. Also, get as close to earning your degree as you can.
Michael G. – Pursue your service goals while in the military. Don’t base those goals on preparing for a job on the civilian side. They rarely compare and you may find that you regret not doing more while you were in.
Jerry – Have a plan! Just know that once you make the decision to retire or separate, that date will come quickly. It is up to you to ensure you are ready to go.
Any closing thoughts or advice?
Alex – I am always available to help veterans in transition. There a TON of little things I learned, so reach out. I’m here. alex@alexRbrownlaw.com
Michael W. – Not that I haven’t mentioned.
Ameeta – My biggest piece of advice is to take advantage of all the opportunities the military has to offer, to include benefits offered by the VA for career assistance.
Tim – I believe military service, at least for me, defines who I am today. I feel it probably defines all veterans. The training I received gives me the drive to succeed at whatever I put my mind to. Failure is not an option. Figure out what you want and attack it! Sometimes it may not be easy, but nothing worth fighting for is. I ended up working a full-time job and taking night classes, in addition to pulling overnight shifts at the Fire Department for 2.5 years. All that plus a family life at home. But I had a goal and an extremely supportive wife that understood I wanted to be a career firefighter/paramedic. She understood that I needed to feel like I was making a difference. Whatever it is you want to do for a career, or feel you need to do for a career, always remember as a veteran you are representing more than just yourself when you interview for that job. You are representing the branch of service you served as well as veterans from all branches of service. You are a testament to a level of professionalism that can’t be taught in a college classroom.
Avril – There are a lot of great resources for veterans out there, but don’t let that limit you. I felt like so many of programs meant to help veterans were limiting. I still see the messages in the veterans group on LinkedIn, and I feel like these people are all looking at the same types of positions or career fields. You really can do ANYTHING. Be creative, and think about what you want to do.
Sarah – Nothing more that I can think of.
Michael G. – Being employable post-service is pretty straightforward. Research the fields that interest you, decide which field is the most marketable, and take the necessary steps to meet those job requirements. No excuses here since you have the GI Bill. When you are ready to enter the work force, you will probably find that you have a leg up on your competition just with that generic vet status.
Jerry – There are a lot of opportunities out there. The first step is determining what you want to do. This is a big one that is not so easy. Then figure out what you already know, and finally, do everything you can to get yourself ready. Also, start working on your resume a couple years out if possible. Get all of the military lingo out and have your nonmilitary friends read it and see if they understand what you are trying to say. Once it is as good as you can make it, hire someone to make it better. The last thing is about the certifications; I can’t emphasize enough how important they are. Do some research and figure out which ones employers place the highest value in and go get them!
Many thanks to our fantastic panelists!
Do you have any insights about the panel questions or experiences you’d like to share? We’re all ears! Tell us what’s on your mind in the comments section below or on our Facebook page. Don’t forget, if you would like to be a panelist on a future Roundtable, drop me a line using this contact form.