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Navigating the military-to-civilian career transition

Jason Perocho (MBA '15)

Jason Perocho (MBA ’15)

Transitioning from an active duty military to civilian career is a daunting task – one I was forced to tackle head on a few years ago after a battle with cancer ended my military career prematurely.

There are no formulaic approaches to guarantee success, meaning there are infinite ways to go about your transition. My goal is to share with you some best practices I learned in business school and from fellow veterans and alumni to aid you in making a successful and relatively painless transition.

Have an honest conversation. 

The moment you even think about leaving the military is the time to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to do in your civilian career. This is by far the most important step in your transition and should ideally be done a year or two before separation or retirement. The military does not adequately prepare its members – especially junior enlisted personnel – for the work required to gain meaningful employment. Know this transition will be tough.

Finding a job can take anywhere from three to nine months, which puts further importance on knowing exactly what you are looking for in a career. I highly recommend reading What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles in order to adequately prepare for your transition. This book has been the definitive guide for those transitioning careers for the last 45 years and is updated annually to meet the changing market conditions.

Ask yourself five questions when choosing a career path.

List your answers to these two questions on separate pieces of paper:

  • What am I good at? (What do my friends say I’m good at?)
  • What are my interests?

Compare your answers. If the lists are the same, congratulations! You have a skill set that marries with your interests.

If the lists differ, then investigate (read: Google) what skills you need to obtain or augment in order to obtain and perform in a position related to your interests. Start by reaching out to recruitment agencies, veterans, alumni, friends and family in the civilian world to learn what careers fit best with the answers from these first two questions.

Now ask yourself these three questions:

What is the job outlook in this career field?

Check to see if the potential career fields you identified have a strong outlook. Be cognizant of any technology or firm that could possibly disrupt your career path. The best way to stay abreast of this information is by regularly reading the news – especially The Wall Street Journal career section.

Do I have the appropriate education level needed to obtain a job in this field?

Ensure you have the necessary educational level to perform your intended job. Network with those already in your intended position and check the requirements listed in job descriptions on employment sites such as LinkedIn’s Veterans Mentor Network group makes it incredibly easy to connect with people willing to help transitioning military.

How much money do I really need to earn?

Finally, take a hard look at your finances and figure out how much money you need to earn in order to continue to live the lifestyle you are accustomed to. It’s important to realize that a large portion of your military salary (BAH, BAS) is untaxed, which will not be the case after you leave the service. If you established residency in a state with no income tax (AK, FL, NV, SD, TX, WA or WY) and intend to move to a state with income tax, you will see an even larger part of your paycheck eaten up by taxes.

I recommend checking out GI Jobs Calculator to figure out what salary you need to earn in your civilian job to make the equivalent of your military paycheck. The website lets you calculate equivalent wages for different metro regions around the country.

By Jason Perocho (MBA ’15)