by Karl Beeman, U.S. Coast Guard
Key Lessons Learned About the Civilian Job Market
Here are the essential elements of a successful military-to-civilian transition:
- Attend — and actively participate in a military-sponsored Transition Assistance Program (TAP)
- Prepare a well-developed resume, written in corporate-speak, not military jargon
- Research and understand employers and what they seek in job-seekers
- Learn basic salary information and tactics for negotiating
- Have multiple methods of contact (phone, cell, email)
- Prepare accomplishment stories for job interviews
- Be ready for multiple interviews — and multiple interviewing techniques, locations
- Purchase at least one set of professional interviewing attire
- Write thank-you notes
- Practice patience and perseverance… the hiring process is extremely drawn out.
Now, Keep Reading for the Details of This Success Story…
Approaching retirement is a whirlwind of emotion for anyone in the military. For most of us, we know we must continue to work to live a quality life, and few are lucky enough to walk right into a contracting job. That leaves the rest of us to try to wade through the storm of corporate interviews and processes. I will share my own experience in hopes to better prepare others when they face the same situation.
I initially applied online for a large company. In fact, it was the world’s largest company, because I prefer to aim high. Thankfully, I was armed with the tools learned by attending a TAP class, where CJ, the facilitator, was exceptional in preparing me for what I was about to face. However, as we were discussing the process during the training, I was internalizing just how much of what she was telling me was true. It seems very far-fetched from what I was accustomed to. Do not get me wrong; the military is used to playing silly games, but I never thought corporate would mirror that same.
Make the Effort with Your Resume
It begins with a solid resume. Military folks suffer from a variety of conditions that serve as a hindrance in this endeavor. The first is that we are humble and do not like to blast our own horn. We are bred to believe that everything we do was a result of teamwork, and so when we sit down to write about our successes, the content can be hard to compose. The second fate is that we speak a foreign language. A suit at corporate has no clue what an Officer of the Day is, or what a Chief Petty Officer means. In fact, they interpret the former as the fact that you were only an officer for a day, meaning something happened and you lasted only 24 hours, and do not get me started about what they think of the word petty in the real world.
Thus, the first step is to find someone as talented as CJ to take military speak and turn it into corporate language employers can understand. My advice is to listen, and do not fight the process. I failed to listen and fought the process, telling myself that CJ had no idea what I did, and why should I listen. Thankfully, she broke me down and I gave in. Together we were able to take my skills and convert them into a resume fit for corporate filing.
Using the Internet When Job-Hunting
Another solid word of advice is to use the Internet. It is your best friend and worst enemy. Establishing a profile on LinkedIn is a great start. Upload your resume, and get your skills endorsed. Do not stop there. Find companies you would be interested in working for and add them to your favorites. Find discussion boards on LinkedIn and add to the discussions. All of this drives recruiters and other folks to your profile and gets you noticed.
Now the enemy part. If you posted a note on Facebook seven years ago about being drunk and stealing a car, you might want to remove that. In fact, everything you ever posted that does not line up with a corporate life should be scrubbed. Dig deep, many of us had an old MySpace account we do not even remember the password to, yet when we Google ourselves we find that photo from the party where we were passed out wearing a lampshade. It might be a good time to spend some quality time with the delete key. You can even write to these sites and ask them to remove your profiles.
Responding to Job Postings… and Initial Interviews
I sent off my resume and after a month forgot all about it. One day I received a call at work about my resume. Thankfully, I provided various phone and email contact info. Which reminds me, having an email address as BigStud13 may have been great when you had a job, but not a great one if you are now actively looking for one.
So I answered the call, and was told all about the job and what to expect. This was the first step to see if I was interested. The caller told me that she would be in touch. Weeks went by. Hearing nothing, I had all but given up. Being in the military I was used to things moving quickly. In corporate life, three weeks is moving quickly.
I then received a phone call one day on my cell phone. Once again, multiple contact channels are why it is important to provide various contact choices. I was actually on the road teaching and had to step outside to take the call. Someone from HR at the same company telling me about benefits and pay. Thankfully, I had already determined the lowest pay I would take to move my family, and that is where the bargaining began. You need to research salary and benefits before the phone ever rings. I counter-offered. The bottom line is we agreed on a salary that both could live with.
Weeks went by again, and still no word. Waiting is the worst. Finally one day I received an email (third contact choice used) asking if I would be willing to do a phone interview. I agreed and began researching behavior-based questions and writing responses based on the SHARE Model. [Editor’s note: See an explanation of the SHARE and STAR methods for responding to behavioral interviewing questions; and also explained more below.] I also researched the company, memorized the mission statement, goals, and key facts. I had index cards all lined up ready for the call. Finally, the call came, and I was able to use some of my stories to answer questions. However, that was not the interview.
A few more weeks went by, and I received another email asking if I would be interested in doing a panel interview. This is a scary notion to anyone in the military because we have flashback of green tablecloths and 5-hour boards. However, this interview was known as a green interview. That meant instead of wasting money and fuel to fly me out, I would be interviewed over a webcam. This brings up another key point…
Civilian Job-Hunting Attire
I remember from TAP that you are supposed to dress for an interview, and even though it seemed farfetched, CJ had been right so far about everything else. Therefore, I went down to the local Men’s Wearhouse to be fitted for a suit. An interview suit consists of an actual suit made within the last year and not of corduroy material, or left over from your high-school prom. I knew very little about suits, but the gentleman at Men’s Wearhouse took the time to explain how to wear them and the do’s and don’ts. Key advice included: Never button the bottom button (in the military we always button everything) including the vest under the jacket, how to wear a pocket square, how to tie a double Windsor knot, and why it’s OK to see part of your shirt below your suit-jacket sleeve.
I was ready for my green interview… almost. During a green interview, the company uses a webcam (some actually ship you one) and a phone line. Never use a cell phone since calls are dropped. I elected to purchase a high definition webcam because if I spent all this money on a suit I want to make sure they can see just how good I look. I also took advantage of the fact that my interview would be on camera and setup posters all over the living room walls with key points about the company and stories that fit the SHARE Model in response to questions I anticipated being asked.
Webcam Job Interview
The day before, the company called to test the connection and camera. I researched how to set up a backdrop during a camera interview. I had a nice, full wall opposite the window, with a small table and vase. Remember, everything they see in a camera interview speaks about you, so having dirty laundry in the corner or politically incorrect reading material must be removed. The test shoot went well and we were a go for the following day.
The day of the panel interview, I dressed in my suit, even though they would not see me from the waist down. Resist the urge to interview in your underwear just because you can. The interview went very well. The questions were all behavior-based questions that began with… “Tell me about a time when”. The key here is to follow the structure of the SHARE Model. Describe the situation in detail so they can picture it, but do not take 10 minutes telling a sea story. Then explain any hindrances that you faced and had to overcome. Then move onto the action you took, being specific and detailed. Then describe the positive result of your action, showing your dynamic leadership abilities and end with an evaluation about lessons learned. Nothing more, nothing less. Sounds easy right?
It is not over. After they ask you questions, it is your turn. You must have prepared questions you want to ask that highlight your skills and knowledge, as well. For instance, I asked, “What are your short- and long- term goals for the department?” This question shows that I like to think in both short- and long-term, and am interested in aligning myself with their goals. I then finished by asking them to go around the table and tell me how long each one had worked for the company and for the department. I wanted to see what the morale was like. If turnover is great, morale likely is not. At the end of my interview, I ended with some key insight about the company, its policy toward hiring military (showing them I researched the company and educating them in case they did not) and thanked them for taking their time to meet with me. I was waiting for the final word, “We are prepared to offer you the job” but instead heard the dreaded “We are still interviewing others for the position and will be in touch.” Hearing this comment, I figured I blew it.
And the Interviews Continue… On Site Interview
Following the interview, I hand wrote a personalized thank-you letter to each participant, thanking each for the opportunity and explaining once again how I would be a good fit for the department. Several weeks went by, and I heard nothing. Finally, I got another email asking if I would be interested in flying out for another interview in person. No more hiding behind flashcards and posters.
I flew out and landed late in the afternoon, and as soon as I stepped off the plane, my phone rang. I was told I would be presenting a 20-minute training event to a panel in the morning, along with participating in a slew of interviews. I had brought nothing to present with and had to take a trip to Office Depot and Wal-Mart to purchase presentation supplies. I spent half the night making posters and running through my lesson material, and finally went to bed about 2 a.m. Exhausted, I woke up at 5 a.m. and was dressed in another suit and headed off to the first interview.
Once I arrived at the interview location, a receptionist escorted me to an all glass room with a table, and I waited for what seemed like eternity. Finally, a woman walked in and we sat down and discussed my resume. Thankfully, I brought extra copies of my resume because she had not had time to review it. We spoke for almost an hour about key things in my resume and things I had accomplished. I then proceeded to another building for six more interviews. The interviews were back to back, with no time to visit the bathroom. Thankfully, I was sweating out any fluids my body was holding so I could survive.
We then went into town for lunch. They call it lunch, but really, it was another interview. They want to see how you interact in a social setting and if you eat with your feet or slurp your soup. I ended the day with my presentation, after which they thanked me, and I packed up my things. I had 35 minutes to get to the airport because I had to catch the next fight home because they would not pay for two nights in a hotel. Still no offer as I headed to the airport. I checked my phone daily every hour and heard nothing.
Weeks had gone by again, and I had all but given up hope when I got the phone call stating that HR would be contacting me with an offer. I found this information to be odd since I had already told them my offer, but this was their chance to finalize it in writing. The offer came in an email, spelled out every detail, including benefits and vacation days. The offer was slightly lower than we agreed on (this was their ace), but since I had mine already planted, the offer was actually right where I wanted it, and accepted.
Final Thoughts on the Civilian Hiring Process
My experience was a long process; it was a scary process that took much time, patience, planning, and praying. This is what transitioning from the military is all about. I hope that my story will help you in your future. I love my new job, I would not trade it for the world, but the civilian hiring process certainly could use some improvement.
Many things happened that delayed each step, such as life, death in families of folks in the interview process, delays with funding for positions, and more. I doubted myself every step of the way, but looking back, it was exactly how CJ said it would be. She just saved me the ugly details but provided me the tools to succeed.
Maximize your use of the many no-cost veteran and career resources — including career consulting to resume-writing to job placements. These resources are there to help empower you to success in your transition from military service to civilian worker.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
This article is part of Job Action Day 2013.
Karl R. Beeman is a retired Chief Petty Officer, and Master Training Specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served with the Instructional Systems School in Petaluma, CA, until August 2013. Upon retiring from the military and completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Management from American Military University, he continued his passion for training and instruction and is now Manager of Programs and Processes, where he facilitates Leadership and Talent Development for large retail