8 Honest Tips For Transitioning Veterans

By Tim McHugh

As a veteran many of us have been put in circumstances and positions that our civilian counterparts will never fathom much less truly understand.  Unfortunately, far too many veterans believe these experiences somehow entitle them to a career in the civilian world.  As veterans transition to the for profit world many don’t have a good idea how to transfer their military skills and experience to civilian life.  Many veterans have unrealistic expectations of what civilian companies are looking for and why they might not be a perfect fit - today for what they want.  As a veteran and now a small business owner with 20 employees, here are some very honest and blunt tips for veterans making the transition to civilian life:

  1. Reality Check - people are thankful for your service but employers have a job to do and they must hire only employees that can provide immediate or short term value to their organization.   It is your job to tell/show them how you are going to add value to the organization.  It’s not about what you have done in the past, it’s about what can you do to help the company and what skills you will bring that translate in to something the company wants/needs.
  2. You must prove your “ROI”.  If a company is going to hire you - they must be able to see/show how you are helping their company.  If they are going to hire you for $60K in salary and another $10K in benefits they don’t need to get $70K of value - but more likely $200K -$400K of value to justify the risk and expense of hiring and training a new employee.  That $70K investment is an opportunity cost - and if it is spent on new hires that capital can't be spent on product development, marketing etc… Employers must be able to justify that the capital spent on hiring you is going to provide better use/value than if they hire a non-veteran, a contractor, or say - buy advertising to drive sales instead.
  3. Employers (not named General Electric) don’t have any/much time to train you - especially small/medium sized businesses.  You will not receive a 3- 6 month training on how to do your job - as you did in the military.   You will be expected to start “paying for yourself” quickly.   You will and must learn on the job and adapt  - and adapting is something veterans do really well.
  4. An exception to rule # 3 is that there are a handful of larger military friendly companies such as Dell, General Electric, Pfizer, and Home Depot which might offer training.    If your job in the military does not translate well to civilian life it might not be a bad idea to look to a larger company that can offer a substantial amount of training.   Many of the companies are willing to develop your civilian skills while taking advantage of the leadership and management skills you have learned in the military.
  5. Many veterans that are exiting the military are choosing to go back to school (using GI Bill Benefits) instead of joining the work force immediately.  Some are looking at degree programs and others are seeking additional job skills training.  If you are going back to school you must have focus on your long term goal.  What is a degree or a skill that will help the next step in your career?  History and English degrees are great - but unless you want to become a  teacher, writer or lawyer they might not lead to as many job opportunities as an accounting, nursing or engineering degree.
  6. You are going to take a pay cut - well sort of.  If you are a senior officer making $100K/year (in pay and benefits) or a mid level non-commissioned offer making $50K/year leaving the military it is going to be very hard to find a company willing to pay you an equal salary.  Quite frankly, it’s just too risky to make a commitment for that type of salary for a veteran that might not transition out of the military very well.   Plan to make less money and expect it.  You will make it up in 1-2 years but the most important part is finding a role and transitioning successfully to a good company that will have future opportunities for growth.  The money will come later - once you have proven yourself.
  7. A soft landing might be to stay in the military field by working for a defense contractor.  Companies like Boeing, Haliburton, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and many others are providing contract jobs to the government or military that are essential and the jobs that military members used to do in the past.  Transitioning to a civilian company that works on military contracts is a fantastic first step to easing in to civilian life.
  8. From a cultural perspective one of the hardest changes for veterans is to leave the military lingo back in the military.  Non-veterans respect military service but sometimes look at veterans like mysterious animals in a zoo when you start speaking in military tongue.  Find ways to show your new peers that you are just like them except with a differentiated - and much more valuable skill set.

Leaving the military is scary, I vividly remember when I left in 2000 and since then have advised and helped countless veterans making the transition.  The most important thing you can do is to remain upbeat, positive and realistic about what skills you can bring from your military career to your civilian employer.

Tim McHugh is co-owner and VP of Sales/Marketing at Saddleback Educational Publishing.  Before joining Saddleback Tim served as a Sales Manager in the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) industry working with several publicly trade software companies servicing semiconductor clients across the world. Tim has served on the Board of Directors of the Educational Book and Media Association (EBMA) and was awarded the Bronze Star while serving as an Officer in Iraq with the US Army. He received an undergraduate degree from Tulane University and an MBA in International Business from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Tim may be reached at tmchugh@sdlback.com or you can find him on LinkedIn