Starting your bridge career after the military

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Long post today: I have 2400 words of real-life examples for a reader’s question.

When I started thinking about a book, I wasn’t writing “just another job-search manual“. I wanted to talk about early retirement and frankly, I was scared of the competition from other career-transition authors. However I get questions every week about bridge careers. If you’ve pushed for financial independence, even for just a few years before separating or retiring from the military, then you have enough flexibility to take the time for a thoughtful job search. You don’t have to sprint to sign a job contract before your terminal leave is over! There are dozens of books and tools to choose from (see the links near the end of the post) and if you have a specific topic area then I can even recommend specific websites and books.

Here’s an e-mail from a long-time reader:

Hi Nords,
I found the Early-Retirement.org site about seven years ago after a Google search for “is military early retirement possible”. I have spent many late nights reading the forum, learning a lot! My question for you, is that you always comment on the job offers that “come out of the woodwork” when you retire, and I wonder what type of jobs you are referring to.
My husband is eligible for retirement in 2.5 years. He is really experiencing burnout. We would not be able to fully retire, and would need a bridge career, but he just doesn’t know what is out there.
Your name came up in our conversation today, after a particularly frustrating day for my husband.
He was relating a story about a Navy guy who got news of a bad assignment. I said that according to Nords, they really start messing with you the last few years of your career. He laughed that I get my information about other services on a retirement forum, and said “Why don’t you ask Nords what kind of jobs are out there after you retire.” So I am! Thanks for your time, and all your past posts!

Back in 2005 a survey conducted by Russ Graves, a retired officer, concluded that 85% of retired officers immediately returned to civilian work after the military. This was independent of military career satisfaction, wealth, expenses, and other lifestyle factors. However in the more senior ranks, the percentages returning to civilian work were even higher. As unbelievable as the statistics may seem, it’s easier for military retirees to get a job than to stay retired.

In the middle of a tough tour, your spouse is facing long hours and burnout. You’re both a bit too busy to sit back and watch the world around you, occasionally commenting to each other “I could SO do that job“. When you’re spending 60 hours a week at work, then pursuing financial independence is less effort than tackling the scary job search. After most military retirements, you face the stress of relocation and perhaps the financial pressure to “get a job”. You may not know the local employment market in your new retirement location, you might not know anyone there, and you don’t feel comfortable taking 6-12 months to find a bridge career that you really enjoy.

Yet there are thousands of jobs out there for military retirees. We have skills. We have experience. You’ll be surprised at how urgent the hiring standards can be. Your biggest problem is networking, and your second-biggest problem is being patient enough not to leap on the first offer.

Part of our employment fear comes from the military’s self-perpetuating culture of constant criticism & humiliation. Our chain of command tells us every day that we’re barely capable of performing at our current rank, let alone getting promoted. We need to “pull our act together” and “step it up”. We hear about how hard it is to find a job in the civilian world and we get scared.

 

What Employers Want

The reality is that you & spouse are members of a demographic in high demand. Employers are seeking the skills that you’ve developed over two decades: “bringing order out of chaos”. It’s walking into a room with people, learning how they do their jobs (or how they’d like to do them), listening to their problems, and figuring out how to get things done. Maybe it’s writing a document or preparing a presentation. It’s cutting through some sort of workplace bureaucracy or figuring out who to call for help. It’s making coworkers happier & more productive so that they can form a team and solve problems. In the military we use squishy words like “leadership” and “taking care of our people“. In the civilian world it’s called “middle management” or “operations” or “program manager” or even “consultant“.

The corporate world is full of waste, inefficiency, and needless drama. Companies want people who can show up regularly, healthy & sober, and ready to work. They want employees who can communicate. They want workers who can recognize a good idea when they hear it. They want people who can remain calm under pressure. Judging from some military commands, our resumes should have bullets like “Knows how to get yelled at” and “Doesn’t get upset about deadlines“. They want people who have “common” sense (not so common) and who can think. They want people who can talk in front of a crowd. Being able to do math is a bonus. They can teach you all the other details about sales & finances. The basics can be learned from the Internet.

My final tour was at a training command. My (unsolicited) job offers were: GS-11 training program manager at the Pearl Harbor shipyard, contract instructor at several military commands in the area (like the instructor training school), and contract instructor at the local business college. Because I’m a nuclear engineer with way too much time standing watch and keeping the lights burning, I also heard from the local electrical utility, the local trash-burning power-generating plant, and shipyard firms.  I didn’t write a résumé or network with submariners.  I’m an introvert who prefers to avoid socializing.  Heck, I don’t even play golf.  Other shipmates are at engineering firms. Another takes care of the shipyard’s Emergency Command Center. A couple are Troops to Teachers at local high schools. A few guys who used to do incredibly stupid things on liberty with me are now running the corporate world, but that’s another bunch of sea stories.

When my spouse left active duty for the Navy Reserve, she drilled at a local headquarters command. Whenever she did her two weeks of active duty (or a few weeks of relief watches) she’d get a job offer by Day Three. It’d be a civil-service job (running an office or helping update programs), or an active-duty mobilization, or a contract to help design & run military exercises. One offer was a full-time instructor contract to teach military watch teams how to use the command’s specialized computers and software.

 

Other career options

Civil service is just one choice. Almost everyone in the military learns about maintenance, testing, and quality assurance. My submarine & aviation shipmates get those types of civilian job at defense contractors and QA firms. Military retirees know about military exercises and tactics development. Every major command contracts a network of military retirees to work a few dozen days a year designing scenarios for training and exercise simulations. A military pension lets retirees be selective about the contracts.

An Early-Retirement.org poster has been getting calls from wingmen who retired before him. In addition to civil-service offers he teaches online classes at a local business college. Because he and his spouse are near a military base with a steady stream of tenants, they manage several rental properties. He’s financially independent so he doesn’t stress about the work or his performance. He just enjoys each day as it comes.

Another Early-Retirement.org poster retired from the Navy to finish his bachelors’ degree in sports management. He’s stitched together a career of refereeing community basketball & softball games, plus working on the golf course. He doesn’t need a lot of money and he’s doing what he loves. He’s also part of a huge job-search network because everybody knows him from their leisure activities.

At USAA’s blogger conference I met a retired Air Force officer who’s “just a pilot”. A wingman hired him for a distribution job at a national retailer and he’s now their flight operations manager– he says he gets paid to fly all over the country. He just wants to fly, but he does some management & paperwork on the side to make sure that the products are getting where they need to go.

If you’ve saved and invested during your military years and you’re close to financial independence, then you can use volunteer service to start a bridge career. Consider non-profits. After my spouse retired from the Reserves, a shipmate asked her to volunteer with a military family literacy group. She’d presents the program to military commands & family groups before the deployment, and give them the program materials. She’d run a display table at book fairs & milspouse conferences. A couple years later she was hired as a part-time regional volunteer coordinator, and then as a program manager. She has savings and a Reserve pension and she doesn’t need to earn a high income.

Consider military-friendly companies like USAA. At the blogger conference I met a submariner who’d left active duty after his service obligation. He’s spending the next two years working 4-6 months in departments dealing with various member-related operations and special programs. They’ll teach him what he needs to know. At the end of that time he’ll fill out a “dream sheet” and let USAA’s “assignment officer” give him “orders” to a “billet”. USAA actually sets a goal of hiring at least 25% of their new employees each year from the military. I still don’t know exactly what some their people do all day, but they learned their skills on the job and they’re happy. USAA hired them for their potential and their military experience, not because they had graduate degrees in the insurance business.

 

Self-employment

Consider blogging freelance writing. This blog reaches a potential audience of four million military & families. After 16 months it averages 300-500 hits per day (and rising!). Personal-finance bloggers write for an audience at least 10x larger. They start with nothing and spend two years writing for free to build up an audience of 1000-2000 hits/day. They learn tips & techniques from other PF bloggers. After a couple of years they have their audience and an advertising income stream of a few hundred bucks a month. They learn more techniques from other professional bloggers and marketing execs– ironically from reading their blogs and watching their videos. After a couple more years the income grows to $1K-$2K a month from affiliate marketing, 50-page e-book sales, website advertising, podcast/YouTube advertising, contracting for smartphone apps… it’s an endless list. Their success is based on their writing ability, sure, but a much more critical skill is perseverance. When you’re writing for free then it’s easy to give up. When you’re close to financial independence, though, you have the time to be an entrepreneur and grow the business.

Very little money is required to write, publish, and sell a book. Again it takes persistence and patience, which you have acquired in bulk from the military. One book won’t buy the groceries but the process gets you started on a writing & speaking career. One of my shipmates used her military training experience to write a leadership book that she’s built up into a six-figure public speaking and career-coaching business.

 

Three ways to start

If military retirees were already living in their ideal retirement locations then we’d be able to research these careers in person. Most of us have to do it remotely, or have someone else do it for us, or we spend a few months doing it after we retire there. Taking a few months to learn the area can be scary because you’re living off of “just” a pension & benefits.

“Remotely” means signing up for LinkedIn.com, filling out a profile, and joining their military groups. Read posts by other servicemembers & spouses in those groups who are networking their next career. Don’t be intimidated by the jargon– these people got through their own transition, made plenty of their own mistakes on active duty, and would love to tell you what they’ve learned. The “hard” part consists of learning the bridge career’s new culture & language, just like transferring to overseas duty. Despite the scary stories, note that people are swapping job offers and career advice.

“Someone else do it for you” means a headhunter. Their staff will help your spouse (and you, too) decide what you want to do by translating military skills & personal interests into civilian equivalents. Then they’ll teach your spouse how to wear a different uniform, handle a different set of protocols, network, do interviews, and get hired. The hardest part is getting the servicemembers to figure out what interests they’d like to pursue. Servicemembers are overwhelmed with “Who would hire me?!?” but the answer is “Everybody in your chosen field”. All veterans have to come up with is a list of “what I like to do” from self-assessment surveys and other career-transition tools. My favorite headhunter story is the shipmate who spent months trying to figure out what bridge career he enjoyed. He did so well at career networking and interviewing that… Lucas Group hired him to be a headhunter. Then he went on to help another dozen of my shipmates find their bridge careers.

If you choose to spend a few months doing it after you move to your retirement area then join local service groups like VFW, MOAA, Rotary Club, or Lions. Just enjoy socializing at the meetings. Volunteer for service projects. As people get to know you, the job offers will come. If you’ve saved enough cash to go a year without a paycheck then it will help you relax and make good decisions without financial pressure.

Impact Publications has an entire catalog of books and pocket guides that cover every aspect of the transition.

Let me know if you want introductions to other Early-Retirement.org posters who were a big help on the book. They’re at all stages of the journey to financial independence, and they can help you too.

It’s not just about your spouse. At USAA’s blogger conference I met a dozen military spouses who have carved out their own entrepreneurial careers (because they move so frequently). There’s a huge network out there for your “milspouse employment”.

I hope these stories help. I’m collecting more stories for the second edition. Please tell me yours!

 

Related articles:
Bloggers at the USAA conference
More bloggers at the USAA conference
When should you stop working?
I’m going to retire. Now what? (part 1 of 2)
During retirement: The inevitable job offers

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

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  12. Reply
    Get on LinkedIn, get a job | Military Retirement & Financial Independence March 1, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    […] 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 […]

  13. Reply
    Ana February 15, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    Okay, I thought that was a fairly thorough post, but you kind of lost me at “85% of officers”. From the enlisted perspective, I’m guessing it’s not quite so easy to have job offers falling all over you. Some jobs will do better than others, I get that, and the rest of the info is applicable for the most part, but it was hard for me to shake the feeling that I was listening to an officer give his fellow officers a glowing jobs report. (I’m married to an enlisted submariner ET who is an awesome quartermaster, but, um, yeah – good thing we still have ten years to go to get all our financial ducks in a row.)

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 16, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      Thanks! It’s a shameless pep talk, too.

      No offense intended among the ranks; there just isn’t much data on the subject. That 85% number came from a doctoral thesis that surveyed hundreds of retirees, mostly officers. I’d love to see a comprehensive study of the enlisted statistics. I haven’t found one in over eight years of searching.

      Look at the number from your spouse’s perspective: if 85% of the officers he’s stood watch with could get a job after the military, then just how hard could it be?!

      In the late 1990s one of my shipmates left the submarine force. He did his career search with Lucas Group, and after a dozen interviews he couldn’t find a match between the companies he wanted and the ones who wanted him. At the same time, Lucas Group had been watching his performance– and they hired him. He founded their enlisted recruiting branch, and he ended up hiring another dozen of my shipmates over the next five years. Today all the major headhunter firms recognize the skills that enlisted veterans bring to the workplace, as well as officers.

      Your spouse has learned to timeslice two or three different tasks under intense pressure, quickly assessing the corrections to make and ensuring that they’re understood by the chain of command. Then he’s done that at three-minute intervals for hours. He’s probably also capable of training & supervising a team to do the same thing. And frankly, he’s had to teach more than a few officers how it’s done. Those are all valuable workplace skills. The bar is just not that high.

      Here’s another thought to consider: officers are given a tremendous amount of authority to carry out their responsibilities, and for some of them the UCMJ becomes a crutch. Meanwhile your spouse has learned to lead the hard way: by motivating people to do what needs to be done. After a decade of service he has more practical leadership skills than most officers. The civilian workplace needs those skills too.

      If there’s a “secret officer handshake” for bridge careers, I was never senior enough to learn it. What counts is figuring out the occupations you’re interested in, networking to learn more about them, and showing the hiring manager what you can do. The process takes persistence and patience, a couple of other skills that you and your spouse have in abundance.

      Over the next decade (if you decide to stay that long) you’ll pursue financial independence and figure out what you want to do after the service. Admittedly we found it easier to save over half of our pay than we did to decide what sort of bridge career I wanted. Either way you’ll have the time and the resources to make a good choice on your terms.

      Let us know how we can help, and please share your story!

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