5 CAREER-BUILDING MISTAKES I MADE WHEN I LEFT THE MILITARY (AND HOW TO AVOID THEM)
Like many of American Grit’s readers, I left the military honorably after four years of active-duty service in the Marine Corps at the height of the Global War on Terror. Most of the people who gave me advice on what to do after the military hadn’t ever really left the military.
So I spent years making mistakes. This article is a guide to some of my biggest screw-ups. Some of them cost me employment opportunities. Others just make me cringe at myself in hindsight. Here are ten things I wish someone had told me when I left the military (and even before):
1. ALWAYS HAVE A SUIT READY TO GO FOR INTERVIEWS.
It was only a ten-dollar security guard job, and I had experience gunfighting as an infantryman in Afghanistan, so it seemed a shoe-in, right? Nope. I could tell the HR person had already written me off. The other candidates wore suits. They had haircuts. They looked presentable. They took the process seriously.
It may seem like a tedious hoop to jump through, but think of it like getting your uniform correct in the military: you’ll always be judged on your appearance, even if you have a stack like Audie Murphy.
Barney-Style Breakdown (for people like me):
- Charcoal or Navy suit
- White or blue shirt
- Red, Black or blue tie
- Black shoes and black belt or dark brown shoes and brown belt.
Have it tailored where you bought it or bring it to an alterations shop and have them take in the sides and the sleeves (minimum). Done. Now you can interview.
2. WHATEVER YOU DO WITH YOUR GI BILL, USE IT TO THE FULLEST.
Personally, I didn’t realize that I could use my GI Bill for study abroad. That cost me thousands of dollars.
I know guys who’ve used the GI Bill for the following:
- Truck driving school
- Attending Harvard
- Sig Sauer Academy for firearms instruction
- NRA training
- Bodyguard school
- Flight School
- Post-graduate degrees
- Community College
- Welding school
- A college that focuses on golf (this sounds amazing)
- Study abroad
The possibilities are nearly endless. You don’t have to stop at entry-level certificates, either; if your career is skill-based, you can continue to get relevant certifications until the GI Bill runs out. And you don’t have to restrict yourself to community colleges and state schools, either.
Plenty of excellent universities have the Yellow Ribbon program, which contributes money to your tuition. Why not go to George Washington University, or Yale, or Columbia?
3. HAVE SOMEONE HELP YOU WITH YOUR RESUME, AND THEN PUT IT IN A GOOD FORMAT.
Lots of people offer resume advice, but few tell you how to turn vague concepts (translate your military experience into civilian terms) into concrete sentences.
My advice? Have someone help you. Personally, I’ve written all of my own resumes, but over the years, professional recruiters have helped me realize how much I did when I was on active duty and the mistakes I made with my resume.
Infantry Fireteam leader in Afghanistan? You’ve led small teams in demanding, high-pressure situations under intense time and environmental constraints. Information Technology specialist? You’ve been responsible for safe operation of sensitive government networks on equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bulk fuel handler? To be honest, I don’t know what you guys do. But tell it to a professional resume writer! The money you invest will be well worth it; alternatively, most colleges have career centers with free resume review services.
Work with a professional. Get a professional resume format. And for the love of God, make sure it’s free of typos.
4. CONSIDER AN INTERNSHIP IN YOUR FIELD INSTEAD OF PAID WORK OUTSIDE.
I was a fitness coach for most of college. It paid well. I kept in great shape, and I had excellent hours that worked around my school time.
But I wasn’t in school to be a fitness coach. And by the time someone told me about internships and research assistantships and study abroad programs, it was too late. I graduated.
This applies mostly to those attending college, but if you’re using the GI Bill, you can probably afford to take a semester or a year and intern somewhere that is relevant to your degree program. This will look better on your resume than being a security guard or a bartender, because the skills you build in an internship are the same ones you’ll need when you start your dream job.
While the 22-year old kids who are graduating from college the same time you are will have those internships under their belt, you’ll have military experience as well. You’ll win every time.
5. WHATEVER YOU DO, NETWORK.
What do people mean by “network,” in practical terms? It means to get in touch and stay in touch. Whether it’s just an occasional Facebook message or going out of your way to get somebody in your field’s phone number, you should network as soon as possible.
In all likelihood, the military instilled a sense of competition in you. If you’re competitive in your post-military life, you’ll do the best you possibly can in your college classes, show up early to your automotive training, or just be the best employee you can.
Networking is actively engaging with people who affect your life or have the possibility to affect your life: supervisors, professors, people in your dream job, fellow students and countless others. They might call on you for assistance, and vice versa. Networking leads to letters of recommendation, security clearance applications, information about a particular company and opportunities that you never knew existed.
Networking is the best way to get a job. Without it, you’re limited to information you find on you own. You’ll need every advantage you can get out there, and if you’re not networking, that 22-year old kid who wants your job is.