Kevin Bell is a researcher and a finalist for the 2014 Presidential Management Fellowship. He is currently working on academic projects while he clears the administrative hurdles for a PMF position in Washington,D.C. He served with the 101st Airborne Division as an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan from 2008-2009, and received an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 2012.
One of the enduring tragedies of America’s war in Afghanistan is that our ambition to improve the country has been so outgunned by our impatience at the slow progress in Kabul. There’s no denying that the American public is exhausted with news from Afghanistan, and politicians have largely responded by either ignoring the topic or urging more cuts to funding for stabilization efforts there. Unfortunately, the lessons of recent history in Afghanistan (1989-1992) and Iraq (2011-2014) suggest that without the right kind of support, billions of dollars invested in training an army and setting up a government during an insurgency can quickly go up in smoke. It would be a horrible tragedy if that were to repeat itself in Afghanistan after our full withdrawal in 2016, and a brief analysis of two relevant historical analogies can help us to understand the dangers of prematurely disengaging from Afghanistan.
Everyone knows that getting a degree is critical to professional success in today’s economy, but there is a misperception among many veterans that all paths leading to a degree are equally viable. Veterans who rush to get into the easiest or the quickest program may find out the hard way that a high student-debt burden and a still-weak economy are a dangerous combination. In fact, attending college can become a financial catastrophe for student veterans if they allow themselves to rack up thousands in debt while earning a degree that is in little demand, or worse, if they become one of the many online college dropouts who still owe their school money for courses they never completed.
In 2011, 11 major companies founded the 100,000 Jobs Mission to create a forum to advocate for veteran employment. Since then, the coalition has obliterated its original goal of hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020. To date, over 190,000 veterans have been hired as the coalition has grown to include more than 170 companies. In 2014, the RAND Corporation published a report based on analysis of interviews with 26 of the member companies, representing a diverse set of industries, “from retail trade to health care to finance and insurance.”
Many authors have argued on the pages of Task and Purpose that good planning is the key to financial and professional success for anyone preparing to leave the military. Those arguments are clear and can be explained in terms of dollars in wages lost due to long job searches and the lifetime earning-power drop caused by years of professional stagnation. However, there is another critical reason for veterans to plan carefully for their first few years outside of the military: The cumulative psychological impact caused by long-term stress during a brutal job search or a difficult first year at university.
When I returned home from Afghanistan this summer, I called my former platoon sergeant to catch up and hear the latest rumors about how our old platoon and company members are doing. Some of the junior enlisted soldiers who worked with us are non-commissioned officers now, but many more have since left the military altogether. I learned that a significant number of those who opted out have struggled to find quality work during their transition. I began thinking about this problem more carefully over the past few weeks, wondering why it was that so many of the junior enlisted soldiers from our unit had such a difficult time starting a decent civilian career. After informal interviews with a few trustworthy NCOs, I’ve noticed a pattern that links the many cases of soldiers who left our company and were unable to quickly find good employment: The majority of them did little planning to prepare for their transition to the civilian world.
Networking is the single most important skill to help ensure that you get a serious look from hiring managers in a weak economy. Unfortunately, it is also somewhat misunderstood. On the surface, networking may just look a lot like meeting and having conversations with people who do stuff that interests you --- or worse, that doesn’t interest you --- and there’s some truth to that. However, in the purest sense, networking is about building rapport, having substantive conversations, and finding commonalities with other professionals in a limited amount of time. Most importantly, when done properly, networking is neither sleazy nor forced. With practice, you can explain yourself to people in compelling ways and develop the starting points for new professional relationships in only a few minutes.Here are some key points that I wish I had known when I started out on my transition into the civilian economy several years ago: