How Military Veterans Can Set Themselves Up For Success When Transitioning Into The Workforce
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One of the things I find most disheartening is working with vets who are struggling with their performance in their new roles in the civilian workplace. As a veteran, myself, I know I felt completely blind as to what I needed to shift to set me up for success.
That’s why I volunteer time with veterans to help them figure out their careers. What I have found is that no matter what they did during their service, many, if not most, struggle with adapting to a civilian world when first separating from the military.
If you or someone you know is about to or is in the middle of transitioning out of the military, below are some tips to help make that transition smoother.
1. Don’t believe the hype. One of the hardest things about transitioning is all the fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of all the “hardships” everyone talks about nonstop. It creates anxiety and doesn’t help with solving anything. Just like in life, yes, there are real challenges; yes, there are unexpected speed bumps and roadblocks and heart-wrenching disappointments possible. But just as possible are completely unplanned and unexpected opportunities, helping hands from people you’ve yet to meet, and heart-fulfilling surprises.
2. Think like a business owner. Even while serving in the military, you were still a business owner. You got paid for being in the military. Yes, it was probably not equal to the value you provided for our country. Just like teachers, police officers and other civil servants, service members rarely get paid for the real value of their work. However, you were providing a service to a customer. Take that into determining your next career move. What business do you want to be in and who do you want to deliver those services for?
3. Don’t assume someone else will take care of it. For the majority us service members, the experience has been a seamless move from having our lives dictated by teachers and parents to having it dictated by the leaders in charge of our unit, right down to where we lived, what we ate and what we wore. Our career path is or was primarily handpicked for us while in the military. However, you were still a business owner. You just handed over the majority of operational responsibility to the military.
What you need to recognize is now you are about to move into a phase of business ownership where you will be in control of everything. For some of you, this will be the first time you are experiencing this level of ownership. This is exciting. Enjoy it. But also embrace this new level of responsibility by taking charge of making things happen for you.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for or receive help. Just because you are back to being a fully responsible business owner, that doesn’t mean you should go it alone. The help may not be as structured, and where it might come from may not be as obvious, but help is available almost everywhere.
You are exiting the military at a time when companies are investing heavily in demonstrating their support of the troops, and it’s not hard to find organizations that exist solely for the purpose of helping veterans acclimate and integrate into the civilian workforce.
This goes for therapy and counseling as well. If you served in a combat environment or went through any traumatic experience while in the military, it’s critical that you don’t simply tuck that away and assume that it won’t pop up in your daily life.
5. Don’t be afraid to work. I know many of you did ridiculously hard and sometimes laborious work while in the military. There’s an element of purpose to even the most mundane task in the military. I could have cleaned bathrooms, but if I did it for the military, I was still part of something big, something vital, something heroic. But doing that type of work in the civilian world doesn’t have the same level of heroism attached to it. Though it should.
Any job that serves others and makes people’s lives better is worthy and respectable work. Don’t let an attachment to titles, pay or material success keep you from taking jobs that may help you in the meantime while you figure out your next chapter. There’s nothing undignified in paying your bills. You also never know where it might lead you. My first job after being a linguist and working at the NSA was as a collections call center manager. That’s right, I went from keeping the country safe to trying to convince others to pay for their refrigerator. But that job was critical to introducing me to the field of consulting and training.
6. Find a new way to experience heroism. There’s an ego check that happens to us when we leave the military. I didn’t serve during a time when people came up to you in the airport and thanked you for your service. I didn’t save anyone’s life or go anywhere near a battlefield. But even I had a sense that I was a big deal in some way, and it was a bit tough working in the civilian world, where your work is rarely referred to as heroic.
I mean how many times have you heard someone say, “Wow, that call center manager saved my life. Thank you for telling me I haven’t paid for that washer I charged on my credit card?” Never. Or, “Wow, if it wasn’t for that VP of accounting, I just don’t know where our country would be?” Yeah, no. Doesn’t happen.
What’s dangerous is we can often create drama without realizing it, because we are so used to dealing with high-stakes situations. Our civilian peers, not looking to have their stress levels unduly escalated, can find this need for action and escalation annoying. In fact, the majority of vets I have coached who work in office settings struggle with just this problem.
All these issues tend to connect to your sense of purpose. As trite as it may seem, the biggest hurdle I see vets struggle with coming out of active duty is defining their own sense of purpose in the world now that the military, its mission and their fellow soldiers are no longer defining for them. This can take time. But it starts with acknowledging it needs to be done and is worth examining.
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