Separating from active duty can be tough. Those of us who have been through it can attest that even in the best circumstances, the personal and career-building aspects of transitions can be stressful. The vast differences between military and civilian life mean that day-to-day lifestyle changes can’t really be avoided, but the challenges of a career transition can be eased and simplified with a bit of proactive work and forethought.
The most important thing is to plan ahead. Don’t wait for that last six months to plan. Maybe you’re planning to retire and think you have years to make it happen, but life doesn’t always work out that way. The most committed would-be lifers can have second thoughts, and med boards, force reductions, and high-year tenure limits can change career plans in a hurry. Every little bit of career development can help landing a job whenever the time comes to hang up the uniform and put on civvies for good.
Here are a couple of career-building tips that can help you aim toward that civilian career, no matter how far off it might be:
Utilize the Programs at Your Disposal
This one might seem obvious since every service member receives some form of transition assistance, but you might be surprised at how many people go through separation briefings without getting anything out of them. The DoD has worked on improving the Transition Assistance Program, incorporating the new Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success) program and Military Life Cycle model, which is designed to help service members work on their transition well before separation.
So yes, TAP class probably isn’t going to be the most engaging and entertaining week of your military career. It might be boring to review how to fill out a job application or sit for a job interview, but there’s a good chance that some of the programs and skills available will be relevant to your needs and can make a positive impact on your career. So even if some of your TAP class is boring, at least try to pay attention to the relevant stuff, and snooze through the rest of it.
Note: Don’t actually sleep through any part of TAP class. Someone will destroy you.
Maximize Education Benefits
If there is Tuition Assistance (TA) available to you and you can possibly fit the workload into your life, take it. One of my greatest regrets on active duty is not utilizing TA to a greater degree. Think of it this way: In a typical university, one class is three credits and 120 credits are needed for graduation. One class might not seem like all that much, but even taking one class at a time in the spring, summer, and fall semesters over the course of a four-year enlistment means that you’ve just picked up 36 credits toward your degree before you’ve even started to draw GI Bill benefits or rack up student loans! That’s the equivalent of a year and a half of school before you even step on campus.
TA is a big one, but there are all sorts of ways that pre-separation employment can work for you. It’s even possible in some circumstances to use the GI Bill on active duty, though it probably only makes sense for a very small fraction of service members. Always keep an eye out for service-specific, DoD and civilian programs that can help you get a leg up. And if college doesn’t seem like your bag, remember that a technical certification or licensing program can just as easily help you when it’s time to transition into the civilian workforce.
As an active duty military member, you obviously have loads of free time to take on a second job, right? Well, maybe not, but there are some cases where taking a little bit of work on the side can be a huge help to your future career. Obviously, always be very sensitive to conflicts of interest, implications for your clearance (if you have one), and just plain over-working yourself, but if the circumstances are right, a part-time gig doing something you love can help fill your résumé with practical career experience.
For instance, imagine you’re an active duty service member who is interested in a writing career. Why not brush up on your writing skills and hit the streets looking for a freelance writing gig? Maybe it pays little or nothing, but it buffs up your résumé just the same. There are plenty of magazines, blogs and websites that are very interested in hearing from someone currently on active duty. Maybe you could get a little side job blogging about military issues or veterans’ career topics. Not this job, though. This one’s mine. You can’t have it.
Beyond that, there are plenty of options out there to do some moonlighting. I’ve seen people run part-time tattoo parlors or repair shops out of their garage while on active duty and turn those skills into a job when they get out. The nice thing is that not only are you buffing up your skills, you might take home a little bit of extra money on the side.
I’ve found in the civilian world that one of the most important elements in getting work is who you know. That may sound unfair, but think of it like this: if you’re hiring for a position and you have two similar résumés in front of you, are you going to pick the person you know and trust, or the stranger?
Networking is very important on active duty if you’re interested in working for the government or as a government contractor. Many military job fields have direct government equivalents, and many service members work with government employees or contractors on a daily basis. It might be a good idea to talk to them if you get a chance.
I’m not advocating schmoozing or being fake, just knowing that someone who is in a place you want to be can be a major advantage. Remember that successful businesses got that way from hiring good employees. If you are good at what you do, they probably want to hear from you, and frankly most people are happy to help a veteran along. Heck, many of the contractors or government employees probably got their jobs doing the very same thing when they were in the military.
More broadly, the regular rules of networking apply. Reaching out to people in the industry can be a good way to establish contacts well before you need them. Just make sure you’re looking well in advance. Dropping someone a line the day before you start terminal leave has a much lower chance of success then spending months or years developing a reputation and relationship with a potential employer.
Like many aspects of life planning, the key to career development is to work hard and plan ahead. These tips can be a starting point, but always make sure to explore the specific avenues related to your service, job field and career needs. There’s never going to be an article that perfectly aligns with your goals, but the willingness to research, plan and put in hard work well before you need it is a skill that will serve you well in your transition and throughout your career.