Transitions in any shape or form are challenging, and when it comes to career development, they can also be confusing and overwhelming. The move from military to civilian life is one such tough transition, and though more opportunities exist than ever before, navigating a new, much less structured environment can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.
"The job market is a wealth of opportunity for transitioning service members, but it feels unreachable when transitioning," says Tyson Patrick, who spent ten years in the Army as an Infantry Officer and is currently pursuing his MBA. Patrick has led combat operations in Afghanistan and conducted life-saving operations in Houston, Puerto Rico and North Carolina after hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Florence. While in the military, he cared for men and women in uniform, helping provide for the morale and welfare of over 500 soldiers. He uses the same dedication and care for his fellow service members in his civilian life and shares lessons learned during his transition to help any of the thousands of veterans who enter the workforce every year.
"A successful transition requires a candid self-assessment of skills, experience, and post-military desire, mentorship, and grit," Patrick emphasizes. Similar to any job search or career transition, contemplating a move from military to civilian life requires preparation and patience if you want to avoid unnecessary frustration and disappointment. Resources exist to facilitate the transition, but the onus is on you to spend time exploring options and building new networks. Check out the steps listed below as you contemplate your post-military life.
Identify a Focus
Service careers are generally well defined, and at any time, you know what opportunities await, how to get them, and what's expected of you. When coming out of such an environment, the civilian world may seem disorienting, and knowing where to even start can freeze you in your tracks. To feel lost in the beginning of a transition, however, is quite normal. It's what you do to tackle the issue of feeling lost that ultimately brings clarity and makes your transition meaningful and successful. Before taking any steps, you want to spend time exploring a potential focus. Focus could relate to a specific geographic location, an industry or a position.
Ask yourself what aspect of your military experience you enjoyed the most. Consult with family and friends -- the people who know you best -- to understand what could make sense for you. Conduct research to explore what the options are in a desired area of interest. Industry exploration allows you to evaluate different opportunities that align with your values, abilities and personality. In addition, you'll be able to find employers who have established programs to welcome, train and hire veterans. Patrick recommends checking out available internships and fellowships, specifically designed to attract transitioning service members as well as their spouses. These can help you both identify an area of focus and gain skills in the civilian world.
Evaluate Your Skills
Speaking of skills, once you identify what intrigues you, conduct an honest self-evaluation to determine where you stand in terms of qualifications. "Don't undervalue skills and experience," says Patrick. "Instead, focus on selling your unique story, trainability, and adaptability." To do that, you may need to work on evaluating the specific hard and soft skills you acquired during your military training and reflect on how these could transfer in the civilian world. Leadership, organization and problem-solving could be at the top of your list. In addition, conduct a gap analysis so you know if there are any gaps in education and skills you may need to close prior to embarking on a civilian career. What education looks like depends on the type of opportunities you decide to target. You may need to go back to school or acquire additional training or certificates. The best part is that you don't always have to start from zero because higher ed institutions could accept military credits.
Translate Your Story
When you develop a better idea of what abilities you bring to the table and the qualities target employers look for, think of examples you could share from your experience to show that you have those skills. Saying "I was a platoon leader" is not enough. Although many employers would appreciate having the discipline and work ethic of former service members, you still need to communicate your motivation and the value you can bring in language employers understand. Military lingo often makes little sense in the civilian world, and unless an employer already has experience hiring service members, their understanding of military training may be limited at best and full of stereotypes at worst.
Translating your story requires you to rebrand yourself. "A subtle change in verbiage can make a difference in convincing [a potential boss] to see you as a "fit" for the company," says Dawn Graham, author of Switchers. "Do the work for the hirers rather than expecting them to figure out how to translate your skills into solutions for their pain points." If you are not sure where to start, consider working with a career coach to help you hone your stories so they clearly show how your experience correlates to the qualifications needed for your target role. You want to be in control of your own story and how it portrays you as a person ready for the step you've decided to take. Letting others tell your story may result in a narrative that's not at all representative of who you are as a person and a professional. This is especially the case when transitioning out of one field and into another, so you may want to use a framework to help you create your new brand.
The benefits of working with a mentor are numerous, and you want to consider the option as you begin your transition into civilian life. "Find a mentor in the industry you want to work in and be coachable," Patrick says. "Mentors are the backbone of your network that serves up opportunities." You could identify a mentor through networking or by utilizing existing resources for service members. Mentors can be the ones offering honest feedback as you learn to navigate the context and priorities of civilian life. They can help you identify a focus, articulate your skills, craft your story and successfully navigate the civilian job search process. As you research employers, you may also pay attention to any affinity programs they have so that you can ensure you'll be able to have mentoring support should you join that employer.
Trust Your Grit
The return to civilian life "can be a tough transition," says Patrick, so he reminds you to "display the intestinal fortitude required to complete the mission and to remember you are never alone in the fight." It took courage and resolve and strength and discipline to go through your military training and successfully complete your duty. You can now use the same approach to tackle this next step in your life and career journey.