One of the biggest questions I think facing any retiring military person revolves around future employment. I know that was the case with me. I’m a 48-year-old field grade officer who was a few months away from exiting and this was a major point of stress. Thankfully, I just got a job and it was one of the biggest senses of relief I have ever had. As I reflect upon the entire process, it occurred to me a lot of the conventional advice I received really wasn’t applicable or helped. In some cases, I did the exact opposite of what was suggested and I enjoyed success. So, I thought I would share what worked for me.
Before I list what worked, let me say the job market is absolutely huge and there are so many industries out there that one set of advice can’t possibly cover everything you need to know. Also, geography plays a huge role. For example, if you want to work in the intelligence industry, there are only a few places in the country where you’ll find work. These two things are important to understand prior to beginning your job search. For me, I knew I wanted to retire in a particular state in the northeast and I wanted to work in a university/higher education setting. That meant areas which I really adored and would have otherwise loved to live were non-viable employment-wise.
I share this because some of my advice is going to be very specific to this industry though I feel there is a lot of general advice that applies across many fields. Job hunts start off years before you actually start off your job hunt. You actually have to approach job hunting as a year’s long process. Make a decision about the KIND of employment you want to do years out and then get whatever education or certification you need prior. Research out your target industry – read job descriptions for jobs you think are interesting – and start seeing what the expected qualifications are for mid-career professionals (the type of work you reasonably qualify for) and start addressing those you are able to address.
As I said earlier, geography plays a big factor depending on the industry you are looking for. Simply put, your retirement landing point should be predicated on the industry you want, not an area you fell in love with. What you’re looking for is an area with multiple employers in your chosen industry so you have many options – as well as an area that has strength in two or three other industries which you COULD be happy in and employable should you strike out in your primary industry. For most people, that is going to be the suburbs. Sorry, I like rural vistas in remote parts of the country but good sustainable jobs generally aren’t there.
Your military experience matters to employers – but not necessarily in the way you think. Frankly, employers outside a few specialized industries don’t feel any special obligation to hire military and I think the ‘skills’ we think we are bringing to the table aren’t really that attractive to them. Certainly, our ‘people and leadership’ skills matter much less than the hard technical skills which are more important to the 21st Century workplace. What does matters to them in our backgrounds is novelty. Most employers are looking for a few resumes that are non-traditional/standard to round out their applicant pools and as a military person, your resume is going to stand out. In fact, the job I eventually got my supervisor basically told me, ‘Your file just stood out because it was completely different and we wanted to bring you in to see what you were about.’
I started my job hunt in mid-December and accepted my job in late February – just about 60 days. But I would caution in thinking job hunts are 60-day affairs. I had been reading and studying the target industry and reading job postings for about four years prior and that allowed me to go ‘faster’ than otherwise if I had started cold.
I sent out 62 resumes. All but three of them were Higher Education administration jobs. I got outright denied on 18 jobs, got several email responses asking for more information from me, and ended up doing seven interviews with three-second interviews (most professional jobs will interview you twice before deciding). My understanding was the level of response I got back (seven interviews) was actually a pretty good rate of response for the field but bottom line, you are going to get rejected A LOT in your job hunt. Well over half of the 62 applications I sent out didn’t even get a response. Prepare yourself so you don’t get disappointed right out the gate when you don’t hear back.
Resumes are way overrated for the industry I chose to work in. But cover letters are everything! Three of the seven first interviews I did made a point of saying that the resumes all looked the same to them and the cover letters were the thing they read first. If they liked what they read then they looked at the resume. That was surprising to me because so much of the advice I received prior to the process centered on writing a good ‘killer’ resume only to find out that I really should have been focusing on the cover letters.
I wrote a pretty conventional resume – I didn’t sex it up, used a pretty clean ‘less busy’ format, and here is the thing…I didn’t go out my way to de-militarize it. I thought, ‘why hide it?’ That being said, I used very descriptive civilian words and no jargon when the job descriptions and accomplishments. I focused on quantities and measurable (not unlike an OER/NCOER), and otherwise just stated what I did. I had a lot of people tell me you have to rewrite your resume for every job you submitted and to incorporate words from the job description you’re applying to get past the automated filters some employers use in screening but honestly, I never changed my resume once for any of the sixty applications I put in. I focused on individualized cover letters and did just fine.
If you have a hobby/extracurricular activity or volunteer work make sure you mention it in your resume and cover letter. I was a volunteer sexual assault response person (responded off-hours to sexual assault and harassment calls in support of Campus Security). In almost all my interviews, no one really asked me what I did in the Army but EVERY one of my interviews brought this up and/or wanted to talk about it. I coached girls’ soccer and two interviewers brought that up. I think that a lot of people applying have similar resumes and chances to show you are more than just your job or you brought something unique to the table seemed to impress them.
I’m not going to say that college is overrated – you definitely need it for certain jobs and I can’t imagine a situation where it actively ‘harms’ you – but I was surprised on how it never came up at all. I ended up getting a second graduate degree in Higher Education Administration prior to my job hunt and I was prepared to talk about it but I wasn’t asked once about it in all of the interviews. In fact, no one asked me anything about any of my college work. I think it mattered in the sense they wanted to see it on my file but otherwise, it never came up. However, this isn’t always the case. If you want to continue your education after the military, military veterans can find access to an online college.
Temper your salary expectations because unless you have some specialized technical skillset or executive experience that lends to a niche industry you almost certainly won’t be making as much as you did in the military. The industry I chose has an entry-level to mid-level salary range of 28K to 60K – I ended up finding work at the high end of the scale. With my retirement, that actually brings me up close to base pay. I can’t undervalue how useful the pension was to me for peace of mind in my job search but then you have to consider you will lose your housing allowance and that is quite a chunk of change right there. Then there will be retirement expenses like health care, state income tax (not a consideration for every state but most states find a way to get money out of you if no income tax, i.e. property taxes in Texas), survivors benefits plan, and VGLI if you elect to pay into it, etc. If you invested and saved well prior that is helpful but the bottom line is most people who are retiring from the Army will be making less than when they were in and you need to get in that mindset now. Middle-class civilian life is expensive.
One thing that surprised me was the salaries listed in the job descriptions aren’t the actual salaries that you might see if you get the job. Those are merely negotiating points and if the employer really wants you – they may come up on the salary. I saw that in my case. The bottom line is don’t talk yourself out of applying for a job you like but is just under what your minimum threshold is because you might find there is more flexibility than you think. No one actually talked to me about why the differential exists but I have a theory that perhaps it is to discourage those who merely chase a salary number and not necessarily the work.
You need to have a professional wardrobe that approximately matches the wardrobe of the job you plan on working, i.e. you need to look the part. There are programs out there to get very inexpensive suits and if that is your price point then you got to make it work. BUT, I think your interview suit is something you shouldn’t skimp on and you will be paying $600-$1000 minimum on what I would consider an acceptable suit – honestly, you should probably be aiming for $1100-$1500. Budget it out prior if you need to but it is an investment and interviewers will notice. Plus there is the psychological effect. Because of circumstances, I had to do one of my interviews in a sports jacket and khakis as opposed to my suit and I know it is going to sound odd but I felt underdressed.
Job Interviews are the goal you’re aiming for in this whole process and they are where you close the sale. If I can emphasize only one thing in this entire article it is this – do your homework on the organization and job prior to getting in there. All three of my second interviews made a point of complimenting me on how prepared I was going into the first interview. A couple of hours of searching the internet about the company, perusing their corporate website to learn about the organizational structure, and some sustained research on industry trends pertaining to the job title go a long way. If there are newsletters posted on the website or FAVORABLE news stories about the organization, read about those. I got the impression talking to interviewers that few people really do this well and if you can pull it off it sets you apart. I’m certain that the job I got called me in on the first interview out of curiosity but the research I did got me the second interview.
Be yourself in an interview – but be the best version of yourself. Dishonesty will get sniffed out relatively quickly. I talked to a mentor who interviews in this industry and resume padding and outright lies are pretty standard and the people who do hiring usually acquire a good BS detector and they will out you. I had a lot of advice given to me about things to say and not say and ultimately I just ignored a lot of the ‘gamesmanship’ commentary and just decided to be genuine, talk honestly about some of life experiences – I got asked about what I considered my weakness and I was honest about where I thought I was deficient – and tried to be a human being. Judging by the interplay and reactions, I think it worked for me.
One question I got a lot – and I know my references got asked – was how would I fit in on a team after a professional career of being in charge? To us military types, that sounds kind of absurd because the military is all about teamwork but remember, you are dealing with folks who have a different aperture about the military lifestyle. They don’t think we are all PTSD victims or right-wing conspiracy types – there is immense respect out there for our institution – but they do think we are a directive-based culture and they are concerned about us coming in and ruining team dynamics by being overly bossy. A variation of this question came up multiple times and I would suggest having an answer ready for it. What worked for me was emphasizing the team-based nature of the profession and showing a bit of humility to allay any concerns.
Most jobs will ask for up to three references but I would suggest giving more. I put together a list of about twelve references with contact information and a brief description of what connection I had with them. All of the references were asked permission beforehand – this is important, don’t assume they will speak for you because I did have one potential reference I contacted when constructing the list asked not to be included for personal reasons not related to our relationship. Obviously, they are going to want to talk to previous supervisors but I recommend putting in co-workers and if you can find a former subordinate who is willing to speak for you, go for it – in my case the former employee might have been the best reference. Add diversity to the list. Have non-military people on there and have women on the list – my targeted industry has a lot of women in it and they might want to ask them a different set of questions for perspective than they would a dude. References tend to get contacted towards the end of the process and they can make or break you.
Social media is an aspect that didn’t really come up in my interview process but I know that it is something that a lot of industries including the one I chose are really looking into and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was googled or had my Facebook and Twitter looked up – in fact on at least one of my interviews some of their questions led me to believe they did at least some cursory research on me involving social media. A couple of things I learned from the knowledge of other applicants are this:
Don’t shy away from social media and refrain from cute aliases. In this day and age not having ANY account on any platform is generally considered kind of odd and potentially suspicious.
Scrub your feeds way before you apply for anything. The privacy filters on FB are decent but get in the habit of assuming everything you post is going to be seen. If you couldn’t explain it to your family or children, don’t post it.
On social media, you are the groups you belong to in the eyes of employers. You might not say anything objectionable but if you are a member of a site where there is racist, sexist, LGBT-phobic, and/or misogynistic commentary shared by others (i.e. most military humor/lifestyle groups), get out of those groups. This is important because I have personally seen several people not get work because of this point.
Profile pictures. Pick a decent picture of yourself or your family and not something ridiculous. Given the privacy filters, the employer might not see your feed but they will see your profile picture and if it is you boozing it up or half-clothed and partying, they will pass you by. As I said, a decent picture of yourself on vacation, a family photo, and yeah even a benign military picture should be fine.
Don’t talk about your job hunt, any of the job interviews you did, offers you got, or impressions you had on SM while engaged in the process. There are stories out there of folks doing this and not getting jobs or getting offers pulled back. Until you receive an offer letter, signed and returned it, get an acknowledgment back from the employer and confirmation you’re employed, and you have ceased doing any other interviews don’t say a thing. If you do elect to share afterward, be polite and brief and leave it at that. Don’t talk about the offers you didn’t take or bad-mouth other potential employers. You would be surprised at how word gets around in the hiring community.
My final bit of advice is to be happy and be hungry without being desperate. Looking for a job is enormously stressful and I missed some meals and sleep during the process. It is not a naturally pleasant experience but it need not be a miserable one either. People will pick up your demeanor within a second of you entering the room and the question they are asking is, ‘Would I want this person as my co-worker/employee?’ If you’re dour, stressed out, immature, or just generally look like you are doing something unpleasant, they won’t want to be around you. I’m convinced now that employers don’t feel a ‘special’ obligation to hire military people – but a part of them wants to give us a shot and how you comport yourself will go a long way towards convincing them to do so.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 18, 2020.
Scott Faith is a veteran of a half-dozen combat deployments and has served in several different Special Operations units over the course of his Army career. Scott’s writing focuses largely on veterans’ issues, but he is also a big proponent of Constitutional rights and has a deep interest in politics. He often allows other veterans who request anonymity to publish their work under his byline. Scott welcomes story ideas and feedback on his articles and can be reached at email@example.com.