The Five Pillars of Career Transition Success

Transition from military service to the civilian job market can be an exciting time. Post-military careers encompass a dizzying array of options and leverage a broad range of skills derived from state-of-the-art training and experience. Low veteran unemployment rates reflect available career options well beyond traditional military job fairs and employment websites.

For many, this is perhaps the first time in which major career choices need to be made that don't involve an assignment officer: 

  • when (or if) to relocate,
  • identifying and considering available job opportunities,
  • determining whether to pursue additional education or training,
  • and assessing which industries present the best economic outlook. 

Ways to resolve these common concerns might not be immediately clear. There's a great deal of information available online, but that can be a double-edged sword. What sources are reliable? What is the best way to gather data and facts? What about information that sounds good but might, in fact, lead down the wrong path? 

Fortunately, a successful transition doesn't require special knowledge or skills. A few key pillars can provide a framework on which to construct a great transition. Executing the pillars in the correct order is as important as the pillars themselves.

Pillar One: Strategy. Too often, transitioning veterans rush into the transition process without a clear objective. If the goal is to attract the attention of a desired employer or company, it is important to have an understanding of what that particular employer is seeking. An across-the-board, “I can do anything!” approach might seem reasonable, but it isn't actually very helpful to a prospective employer trying to assess specific skills required for their needs. A clearly defined objective - either a specific position (e.g., project manager), or type of industry (say, health care or logistics) - allows a candidate to properly present key strengths and skills in a way an employer can understand and appreciate.

Pillar Two: Networking. This pillar might surprise many of those in transition, especially those with a tendency to initially focus on their résumé. The single most important facet of the job-search process is networking. However, networking often is ignored or not made a priority due to a lack of understanding about what it is or how best to accomplish it. Networking simply is leveraging new and existing relationships - relationships that are casual and professional in nature. Networking already is something most people do without realizing it: for example, when searching for the best school for their children, when looking for a reliable air conditioning technician, or when exploring options for a new or used car. Networking is critical to the overall transition process because it allows a candidate to bypass the downtrodden path of posting or submitting résumés (which every other candidate also is doing). Instead, it helps a job seeker use contacts to uncover information about jobs that aren't posted - a significant number of jobs are never posted anywhere - as well as get a foot in the door at a desired company. The objective is to establish a casual, professional relationship with an existing or prior employee. Employee referrals almost always get interviews.

Pillar Three: Résumés. At long last, the résumé! Résumés are an important and necessary part of the job search process, but candidates aren't hired because of their résumé's content. This is not a cause for concern, because getting a candidate hired is not a résumé's purpose. The purpose of a résumé is just to start the conversation with your target employer. At a minimum, a résumé should inspire a phone call from a prospective employer to have a discussion, but the ideal outcome is an invitation to come in for an interview. Two important elements will ensure your résumé is ready to do its part. First, résumés always should focus on the needs of the employer and not be a “biography” of everything the candidate has ever done. Employers often favor chronological résumé formats because they readily show where and when desired skills were acquired. Second, résumés always should be reader friendly. The reader picks up a résumé and already knows what they are searching for: specific information related to required skills and abilities. A résumé's format should make it easy for the reader to find that information quickly.

Pillar Four: Interviews. This is where the deal is sealed. A successful interview is one in which a candidate is at ease, is able to answer detailed questions about professional skills and experience, and has established a professional rapport with the interviewer. Interviews primarily are about determining the candidate's fit for a position - that is, how well they'll integrate into the existing team and company culture. Fit is critically important, because it's a major indicator of how long a candidate is likely to stay on board, something of keen interest to an employer.

Conducting interviews is a laborious and time-consuming process, so employers generally use them to assess only those candidates deemed at least minimally qualified for the vacant position. What is most important about this particular pillar? In a word, preparation. Research basic information about the company and be familiar with key aspects of their business as well as knowledgeable about any recent newsworthy items. Also check for background information on interviewers via Google and LinkedIn. Not only is this degree of preparation both obvious and impressive, it indicates a strong interest in the company - an attractive attribute for employers.

Pillar Five: Salary Negotiation. By this point in the transition process, most candidates are flying high on the success of having received an offer but often are uncertain about how to proceed. Military salaries are a matter of public record, while private-sector compensation can seem mysterious. But there are several straightforward steps candidates can take prior to sitting down at the negotiation table. 

First, keep in mind the salary negotiation process is not just about salary. Achieving a good outcome requires consideration of the full compensation package: salary and benefits. If an employer has a strong employee benefits package, the offer deserves serious consideration, even if the offered salary doesn't quite reach your desired level.

Second, give some thought to personal salary requirements and develop three different numbers: 1) a number that represents the absolute minimum desired salary to ensure existing personal financial obligations can be met; 2) a second number for a salary level that would create a feeling of high satisfaction and happiness; and finally, 3) a number representing a mind-blowing salary that exceeds all reasonable expectations. Having these three numbers in mind will allow an instant assessment of any offer based on a candidate's personal baseline of financial needs and expectations. 

Next, conduct advance research to gain an understanding of a general salary range appropriate for the target position. This can be determined from a number of sources, including online references such as, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( Industry networking contacts are another good source. The objective is to have a general salary range in hand to understand industry parameters for the same or similar positions based on location, type of industry, and company size. It is important to understand the salary negotiation process is not adversarial. The company has worked hard to get to this point and has a vested interest in satisfying the expectations of a top candidate and closing the deal. 

Upon receiving an offer, your options are to accept, decline, or renegotiate. If the offer falls within your researched range and meets personal requirements, then accept it! This is the best-case scenario for both the candidate and the company. If the offer does not meet your requirements and is below your researched range, consider declining it. This always should be done with courtesy and professionalism. Finally, if the offer is within your general range but lower than desired, by all means renegotiate. Renegotiation often is expected by a potential employer and is not taken as a negative. However, be prepared to justify why an employer should consider a higher salary. Emphasize specific skills, qualifications, and other desirable attributes that attracted the company in the first place. While it is likely the company will have a runner-up or two waiting in the wings, its desire is to land the top candidate, if at all possible. Professionalism and preparation are the best tools at this stage of the process and will serve any candidate very well. 

Navigating the transition process following a military career sometimes can feel a bit perilous and uncertain. But following the above pillars will light the path to a successful outcome. Taking time to thoughtfully approach the transition process will result in a job that delivers a high degree of personal and professional satisfaction.


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