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Transition From Military-to-Civilian Life With a Plan

More than 200,000 service members transition from military-to-civilian life every year and our country needs your leadership, experiences, maturity, and inherent drive to get the job done.

Article by Corporal Jeffrey J. Cleland, USMC, Ret. March 12, 2018 //   6 minute read

I remember it like it was yesterday: June 2008 I was handed my terminal leave papers and told I could escape Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and return to the place I grew up. I remember the feeling of freedom when I plotted my drive on MapQuest—we didn't have Google Maps back then— and the excitement when I took off toward home. But, my 21-year-old self didn't have a plan and looking back on this immature version of me, I wish I had done things differently. 

This lack of planning, or incomplete planning, is not only slowing down your potential, it is also slowing down our country’s economic growth.  More than 200,000 service members transition from military-to-civilian life every year and our country needs your leadership, experiences, maturity, and inherent drive to get the job done. 

Similar to my story, I can't even begin to count the number of times a veteran has told me they wish they knew more about _____ or had done their transition differently. We often say that you don't know what you don't know, but in the day and age where you can use the device in your pocket to summon chicken wings and beer on a Friday night, that excuse is quickly losing validity. 

So, here is what I have learned from my own experiences, research at the George W. Bush Institute, and my many years helping service members successfully transition. 

Decide where you want to live based on research, not impulse.  Returning home may seem like a safe place to help spring board you to the next opportunity, but home may not be best place to leverage the skills you developed while serving in uniform. Begin your transition by researching industries in areas you want to live and the skill gaps that are there. The skills gap is the place in the workforce where employers are asking for something that many employees do not have.  For example, healthcare and Science, Technology, Engineer and Math (STEM) industries are facing shortages i.e. physician assistants, EMT's, explosives technicians, welders, etc.  If you are interested in these fields and willing to gain the specific skills, you will be valuable in that market. 

Make an investment in yourself and in your future.  Based on a study done by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, "55 percent of transitioning service members said that they are likely to pursue a different career than their military specialization."   The investment can be college or certificates in specific fields, but it is important to build your value by gaining the same credentials as your civilian counterparts. The incredible part about this investment is that it is paid for by your GI Bill, a benefit you earned in return for wearing our nation's cloth.  It may seem like a long time, but spending a few short years in school will pay dividends in the long run.  

Similar to how the military wouldn’t bring an 18 year old in as an E-6, the civilian world may not hire you directly into that front-office manager role. The investment you make in yourself now, will open doors when promotion time comes or you decide to move out and up.  

Seek out multiple mentors. You should have at least three mentors: One still in uniform, another who has successfully transitioned, and one who is in the job you want in 10, 15 or 20 years. You can use these mentors to chat about your challenges, successes, and seek out advice. To find these mentors, start at Veterati and American Corporate Partners

Network, network, network.  Oh yeah, and network.  Whether you spent four years in service or 40 years, the majority of your adult life is spent in a community that is isolated from the outside world.  Tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are incredible advancements in the world of networking and should be utilized as such. LinkedIn can be a great way to find that mentor whose job you eventually want.  Don't be afraid to link with them by adding a personal comment about why you are connecting. 

You may not want to face the reality right now, but you will eventually transition out of the military.  I wasted valuable years of my young professional life figuring out what I wanted to do and I implore you not to make the same mistake. 

We all know from our time in the military that a plan is just something to deviate from, but it is always better than no plan at all.  When you receive your terminal leave papers, please don’t be saying you wish you had a plan.