The hard truth about civilian salaries for veterans leaving the military

There’s a lot to think about when finding your first post-military job.

There are a lot of military transition gurus out there who will tell separating veterans almost anything they want to hear about getting out of the military and finding that first job.

When considering transition advice, be sure to use a critical eye. Is everything coming up roses in their world? Are they promising a six-figure salary based only on military experience? Have they even begun to mention some of the barriers veterans face? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2016, served five years in the military, and separated as a captain. When I transitioned, I stepped into a recruitment role where I helped hundreds of military veterans refine their resumes, prepare for interviews, and understand how to meaningfully talk about their military experience.

One of the most challenging aspects of my role wasn’t translating skills or finding employers committed to hiring veterans, it was discussing the financial reality of a role with transitioning military members. Many of them were more focused on base salary than they were on total compensation and it kept them unemployed, even as qualified candidates.

Admittedly, I fell into this same category during my transition. I was repeatedly told that my military background would secure me a role that would easily surpass $100,000. Countless soldiers would tell me and their peers, how they could be making significantly more in the private sector.

While I’m sure a lot of those scenarios were well-intentioned encouragement or a “grass is greener on the other side” mindset, the fact remains: many veterans, including me, have an exaggerated understanding of their financial transition.

The Hard Statistics

  • Here’s a number that hurts…only 18 percent of individual Americans make a salary of more than $100,000 a year.
  • Here’s another; only 34.4 percent of U.S. households cumulatively bring in $100,000 or more per year.
  • The average personal income in the U.S. is $63,214, while the median salary is $56,420. Remember, an average can be skewed by outliers, while a median shows the very middle of a data list.

Recognizing that these are 2022 statistics and don’t account for geographic considerations or overtime, the hard truth remains: the average American is not making a six-figure base. Most aren’t even making $80,000.

Moreover, most college graduates in their first year after graduation have an average starting salary of $55,000, which is 75 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

These statistics aren’t meant to scare anyone but rather educate about the reality of the financial landscape outside of the military. As a service member, you received many financial benefits like reduced-cost medical care, life insurance, food and housing stipends, retirement benefits, and pay increases every two years that helped to offset inflation rates. That is not how the private sector works.

While this all may sound bleak, there is hope, I promise.

There’s no shortage of qualified professionals advocating on your behalf. Knowledge is power, and while an advertised salary may not initially sound appealing, understanding how a company compensates its employees can help bridge some of the many gaps your military transition may create, like housing, food, and saving for retirement.

RecruitMilitary’s Placement Services

Many companies offer competitive compensation and benefits packages, but most people don’t know the extent of their potential earnings until they have already applied for a role.

RecruitMilitary’s Placement Services provides eligible candidates with a behind-the-scenes look into organizations invested in hiring veterans and transitioning military. Candidates talk to a client representative before applying, allowing for a better explanation of duties, work-life considerations, in-depth benefits explanations, and an accurate depiction of base salary and total compensation.

Placement Services aids candidates in aspects of their job search, from resume writing to negotiating a job offer, making it the most comprehensive career resource available.

DAV (Disabled American Veterans)

DAV helps veterans receive the health, disability, and financial benefits they’ve earned—for free. Don’t procrastinate in applying for your veterans benefits. These benefits add up and could be used in negotiations for a higher salary.

DAV won’t necessarily help you receive a higher salary, but they will advocate for you and your family in every chapter of life. Each year, DAV professionals interview more than 330,000 veterans, helping them cut through red tape and file more than 200,000 claims for VA (Veterans Affairs) benefits.

While this may not seem significant to your job search, DAV helped veterans and their families apply for over $20 billion in earned benefits last year.

Final Thoughts

A military transition can be both an exciting and stressful time. There’s no one answer to a seamless transition, a competitive salary, or a stress-free job search.

If you find yourself disappointed at a lack of easy solutions, don’t settle; seek assistance. The likelihood of success increases significantly with help from professionals in the space.

One final word of caution; not all military resources have your best interests at heart. Transitioning veterans are a vulnerable population. Nefarious actors will disguise themselves as a resource, often targeting those seeking help. Be diligent in researching an organization’s credibility before accepting help.

Roughly 200,000 servicemembers transition each year, and like most of them, you will persevere, overcome, and land on your feet. You can soften that landing with just a little help.