7 Habits You Need To Transition To The Civilian Workforce

Photo by Cpl. Jeff Drew

My transition out of the military began with a sobering thought as I drove off base for the last time with my DD214 in the passenger seat, replacing the check-out sheet that I had been working on for the last few weeks. I reminisced on all of my "last" experiences: the last time I went to the range, the last Marine Corps ball, the last unit physical training, the last fitness report, the last time I put on a certain uniform.

For the last nine years, I have been a Marine --- I shaved every day, I got a haircut every weekend, I knew what I had to wear to work each day. The "needs of the Marine Corps" told me where I would go and what my job would be, but now I have to find a job of my own and determine where I want to live. I have to weigh location, schools for my kids, salary, benefits, and most importantly, job satisfaction. It is a brave new world and as much as a Marine will never admit, it is scary as hell.

Most military members of this generation joined the armed forces with great intent, few, if any, were forced or guilted into service. We supported two large wars for over a decade while maintaining a forward presence all over the world on land and at sea. Many of us deployed multiple times, worked late hours to get people ready and out the door to deploy, and did it more efficiently and effectively than anyone could have planned.

Related: Simple steps for when you transition out of the military »

So now, while the task of transitioning out of the military might now seem daunting, remember these things as you enter the civilian world.

  1. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn: Some of the best Marines with whom I worked had the most difficult time summarizing their accomplishments on fitness reports and on resumes. They ran large units, departments, and projects and felt guilty taking credit for the work. That is what effective leaders do: they give their workers the credit, but behind the scenes, they inspire their teams, they remove obstacles, and they set the example for success. Use your evaluations and awards to demonstrate your strengths and tell employers where you ranked among your peers. Don’t sell yourself short or you will likely end up with a job below your capabilities.
  2. Don’t discount the benefits and gross pay of the military: When I finally got a new job, my gross pay was higher than my military base pay, but my take-home pay was about one-third less. Once you factor in housing allowance, meal allowance, and free medical and dental, it is quite a bit of added pay that you probably have not yet considered in your new budget. Manage your expectations and those of your family because this reality will slap you in the face if you are not prepared.
  3. Don’t be offended if people don’t understand the military: Less than 1% of the American population has served or is serving in the military. Aside from the families and friends of service members, the other 99% have no clue what you did or understand the culture of the military. They will try to relate to you and they usually have the best of intentions, but they have absolutely no clue. They will call a Marine a soldier, they will ask an officer why he “enlisted” if he went to college already. They don’t know the difference in a second lieutenant and a lieutenant colonel. Don’t let this offend you. Their only frames of reference are war movies, video games, and documentaries. Use this time as an opportunity to teach them, and tell them all of the good that so many are doing right now for our country.
  4. Do tell your story: Tell those you meet about all of the places you have been, the people you have met, and the unique experiences you lived. Most people will be enlightened to hear something different from the troubled veterans narrative that they see on television and in movies. Your story is an integral part in bridging the gap between service member and civilian that is crucial to the future of how our veterans are viewed and whether people care about the policies that affect us.
  5. Find a veteran, help a veteran: I found my job through a reference from a Marine I served with in Iraq, and I have referred other former Marines with whom I have worked. We have an incredible network of veterans doing amazing things in the workforce and many companies are finally starting to see and reap the benefits of hiring veterans.
  6. Respect your human resources and safety departments. You may discount the need or efficacy of similar departments in the military, but they can be an incredible resource in the civilian realm. In the military, you likely had a squad leader, platoon sergeant, or first sergeant who would take care of every problem you could think of, or at least direct you to someone who could help. Once you transition out, your human resources department can be incredibly helpful for your own needs and those of your employees. Beyond the obvious support with pay and benefits, HR employees can help you get to know your local area, the culture of your workforce, and even help coach underproducing employees. Also, unlike safety representatives in the military who seem to only really care about wearing your glow belt in hours of darkness, civilian safety reps (especially in industrial or warehouse environments) will help you navigate the complex world of workplace safety regulations, and keep your people and equipment safe and operating productively. Get to know each of these departments right away and your life will be much better.
  7. And finally, be outgoing: Show employers that you can have fun and still get work done. Show them you’re as cool as the other side of the pillow when chaos is chasing you down. Get to know those who work with and live around you --- this isn’t base housing where friends and neighbors are issued to you. Serve in the community and as a community liaison for any of the events that your company is involved with. Be positive, look for opportunity to share your skills with your new coworkers and throw out one of the millions of jokes you heard in the service (but, maybe run it by a trusted civilian friend first for appropriateness).

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