I guess I should’ve seen this coming. I’ve blogged about financial independence and using your military benefits and coping with drawdowns… and suddenly some of you are wondering exactly how to go about getting a bridge career.
If you’re just joining us here through a search engine, then you might want to take a look at this post on what types of bridge careers are available for military veterans. (Hint: all of them!) The end of that post advises starting the transition early so that you and your contact network have the time to figure out what you want to do and where you might want to do it. Even two years in advance is not too early.
I’m only 51 years old but I’ve never had a “real” job. Frankly, I found it far easier to strive for financial independence than I did to look for a job. However I’ve had plenty of job offers, and I’m happy to share my advice on how to set yourself up for them.
Let me back up that point for a second: if you push hard to achieve financial independence before you leave the military, then your search for a bridge career is much easier. You don’t have the financial pressure to find a job– any job– and you have the luxury to decide whether the first offer is truly your best & final offer. You can enjoy a few months off with family & friends. You can move to your final retirement location and get to know the area for 6-12 months to do more thorough research of the employment market. For some services, you’ll be out of the military for six months in order for the government ethics clauses to expire. This allows certain positions in defense consulting, contracting, or civil service to be made available to you.
But while you’re waiting for that blessed Day One of terminal leave to arrive, you might as well tutor yourself on the transition process. You don’t want to have to cram the study into a few months or rush through the actual transition.
You’ll also be auditioning headhunters. The popular firms (for enlisted technicians & managers as well as officers) are mostly non-exclusive. If you’re asked to sign an exclusive contract with one of them then you may want to assess exactly how much help they’ll be in targeting your specific career field. (Some headhunters are specialists, others more general.) It might be better to talk with the firms who don’t mind if you network the job search on your own as well as with their help. When you’re up front about your intentions, they can share their concerns before either of you is committed to a long-term relationship.
If you choose to consult a headhunter, you might think that you need to have a separation date before you can contact one to start your career search. Not so! The biggest task of a headhunter is to clean us up get you ready for the transition. One of their first goals is to help you figure out what you want to do during your bridge career. You’re not “just an infantry grunt” or “yet another aviator”. Instead you have to figure out who you’re going to be (not just who you are) and what you want to do about it. You may already know that you’re “a rising logistics professional”, but you’ll have to do better than “entry-level management” or a “mid-grade nuclear engineer”. When you contact a headhunter then you’ll be able to fill out a profile database and start the process of surveying your interests, strengths, & specialties. As soon as you realize you’re not doing another tour, that’s the time to start contacting headhunters.
While you’re thinking about headhunters, it’s also time to do your reading homework. I’d start with “The Military Advantage”. Yes, it’s a benefits book, but it’ll also help you frame your career search with their help. Maybe you’ll want to use the GI Bill, or maybe the book will help you realize that you have other skills which employers are seeking. I spent a couple of days at a conference with editor Terry Howell, who’s also a military retiree. He knows his subject and you’ll start your search with a solid understanding of your benefits.
After that there are literally hundreds of career-transition books. One excellent example is the “Corporate Gray” series from Impact Publishing, including a Kindle compilation of all three versions. Another is The Fort Living Room Transition Course by USAA community blogger Chazz Pratt. Another classic is Richard Bolles’ “What Color Is Your Parachute?” At a minimum, I suggest that you skim a library copy of all three books and then buy at least one. If it doesn’t “click” with you, then go to Impact Publications’ career transition website and keep searching the titles until you find one that works for you. Don’t get discouraged if the “right” book doesn’t make itself immediately obvious. Just like your eventual bridge career, it’s out there somewhere– you will find it.
Contact networks and LinkedIn
A third tutorial comes from your contact network. You’re probably wondering how to develop a contact network for this transition, and I recommend that you start with LinkedIn. If you begin using LinkedIn months or even years before your transition, then you’ll be totally familiar with the system and able to exploit all its capabilities. Your first task should be to simply look at LinkedIn’s new users learning center. Just spend 10 minutes reading about the account– don’t worry about filling out your profile or uploading your image or importing your e-mail contacts. Don’t send out invitations. You’ll work on those skills in the coming weeks.
For some of you, this may be a good time to sign up for a new e-mail account. You probably don’t want hiring managers seeing “TopNuke@Yahoo.com” on LinkedIn any more than you’d want it on your résumé. Pick one based on your name so everyone can recognize that the e-mail address is you.
Here’s a social-networking hint: LinkedIn is very aggressive. They want to own you tell you what information to give them and how to share it. Don’t do that yet– don’t even finish “Step 1″ of LinkedIn’s sign-in process. Instead read through the links & tutorials on the left-hand side of the learning center page. Remember that you’re putting your professional image on display for other members to examine. Your primary goal is to assemble your information in a way that appeals to a hiring manager. However keep in mind that your profile may be available to your wingmen… and even your XO or your commanding officer. Consider the tone of your writing and remember that a hiring manager is looking for someone who can professionally represent their company, as well as work for them.
Once you feel that you understand the basics of LinkedIn (or maybe you’re already at that point) then read Liz Ryan’s LinkedIn recommendations. She’s a hiring executive for Fortune 500 companies. She’s experienced or heard of every job-seeking technique, resume format, and interview tip: both good and “not so good”. (Her article helped me with several tips on my account. I’ve been on LinkedIn for several years, but it took her article to make me realize that my “professional headline” section of my profile should read “Author of The Military Guide” instead of just “Early Retiree“.) When you start using LinkedIn groups and discussions, the headline is the first thing that pops up when other LinkedIn users hover a cursor over your profile. So whether you’re a LinkedIn veteran or a new member, her article will help you discover a nugget or two that will improve your profile and streamline your search.
Liz’s article can take literally a couple of hours to work through, so I recommend that you bookmark it or print it out and work on it in 20-minute increments. Don’t feel compelled to have a complete resume before you start– you can use phrases that will later be included in your résumé. Once you’ve filled out your basic profile (the first 13 of her 25 steps), then take a break for a while and start browsing LinkedIn’s groups. Along with your friends and mentors, they’re the beginning of your contact network. Use the “groups you may like” feature, or search the groups for military keywords in your service, your specialty, and your interests. For example I’m a member of “Submarine qualified” and I’ve applied to join “U.S. Navy veterans”. Apply for your chosen groups as soon as you finish your basic profile, because it may take the group moderator a week to get around to approving your request. You only need to join a few groups, and at least one of them will be sharing bridge-career information. Don’t polish your profile cannonball before joining the groups, because the groups are another way to help you improve your profile. Get your “profile version 1.0″ on LinkedIn, start joining groups, and begin thinking about v2.0 while you’re learning more networking skills.
Once you’ve joined (or been admitted to) the groups, then click on the group to see its latest discussions. Look for “Settings” on the link bar (hidden under the “More” header), and adjust your e-mail preferences. Choosing a “daily digest” will summarize that group’s discussion topics so that you don’t have to remember to check them every day. You can also use the digest to skip the sea stories and focus on the career-networking discussions & announcements.
Now you’ve set yourself up with a steady diet of information from groups. Some of that will include posts about careers, networking, and job fairs. Your digest e-mails will help you automate your daily online reading while you work on the rest of your LinkedIn profile and your other transition reading. A week or two of this will show you good ideas on networking as well as “other” attempts. By the end of the second month you’ll have a feeling for how you want to start asking questions, begin your own networking, and contribute to other discussions.
Note that you don’t need to start collecting contacts right away. Take a month or two to get familiar with LinkedIn’s tone and etiquette so that you don’t come across as a party-crasher or a spammer. If you recognize battle buddies and mentors then feel free to send them an invitation. (Hopefully you’re seeking mentors who are no longer in the military and can help you find that bridge career.) Let them know your plans without asking for help or favors. They’ll see your activity and eventually start sending info your way.
Once you’ve worked through Liz Ryan’s article, you’ll know more about LinkedIn than I do. You’re probably ready to start thinking about your chosen field and to start writing a targeted resume. I’m afraid that I’m no help there, other than recommending the above books.
Let me put in a shameless plug for USAA and other organizations who are specifically hiring veterans. If I was looking for a job then I’d start there. I immediately felt at home in USAA’s San Antonio building, and later I realized it was because I was surrounded by veterans. It’s the type of camaraderie that you take for granted in the service, but you may miss it once you’re wearing a civilian uniform. USAA has several bricks & mortar member service centers across the nation, and military-friendly employers are everywhere. You may feel a tad allergic to the military network right now, but these companies are filled with people who understand your background and your skills. You’ll fit in much more quickly and feel much more comfortable with your new environment.
Feel free to send me a LinkedIn invitation if you think that would help you, but keep in mind that you may not want to show a Hawaii early-retiree ponytailed surfer dude among your LinkedIn network. Employers might start to wonder just how serious you are about a bridge career… and they may never understand your goal of financial independence!
So what LinkedIn groups have you used for your career search?
Starting your bridge career after the military
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