The days of spending one’s entire career working for a single employer have all but disappeared. In fact, according to marketing research firm Forrester, the youngest workers today will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime. But there are only a handful of professions in which an abrupt career change is required. Professional athletes typically must find another career in their twenties or thirties, but many have the luxury of a sizable bank account to smooth the transition. Workers in boom-or-bust fields like oil exploration are often laid off with very little notice and find themselves scrambling to find another source of income. But there’s only one group whose members regularly use the term “second career” to refer to an inevitable transition – and that is military professionals.
Transitioning from the structured environment of an active-duty military career to the looser, more independent surroundings of the private sector has its challenges. But in most cases, service members have enough advance notice to put a plan in place. The tricky part is figuring out how to best use that time and what type of plan to build. Will Barr, a Strategic Marketing Consultant with First Command, retired in 2017 as a Master Gunnery Sergeant after a sterling 30-year career in the U.S. Marines. We asked him to share some of his experiences, offering insights on both what worked and what didn’t as he made this challenging transition.
How far out did you begin preparing for your retirement from the Marines, Will?
I applied for admission to the Department of Defense Executive Transition Assistance Program (TAP) 14 months prior to my scheduled retirement date and attended a week-long program in Quantico, VA two months later.
How helpful was the course?
To be honest, I would have to say that a lot of information was shared, but I did not find most of it to be very helpful. I would classify it as information overload that left most of us still wondering where we should start.
In hindsight, was there something in particular that you feel like was missing?
There was little or no discussion about the importance of developing networking skills, which I quickly came to learn is very important in the private sector job market. At that time, I naively believed that all I had to do was set up my LinkedIn profile and wait for the job offers to pour in!
What do you think is the biggest challenge for career military people seeking what could be their first job in the private sector?
I think that, almost without question, it is being able to tell the story of how the skills you developed over the course of your military career will effectively translate to your next career. It’s not enough just to have a resume, you must tailor your resume in such a way that employers know what they can expect from you.
Were you able to secure interviews during the period before your retirement?
Getting interviews wasn’t that big of a problem. I interviewed with three large companies and two smaller companies before I connected with First Command.
How did the interviews go?
I thought they went well. In fact, I thought I knocked them out of the park! So, it was frustrating when I didn’t hear back from some of them. In retrospect, I would just emphasize again how important it is for someone coming from the military to be prepared to help the person interviewing them understand why they would be a good fit for the organization – and that means doing your homework before you show up for the interview.
So, did you receive any offers?
I did receive an offer after those initial interviews, but I really didn’t like the feel of the team and the financial package they offered wasn’t in line with my education and experience.
Was it tempting to just take the offer so that you would have a paycheck coming in until you could find something better?
Honestly, I never really considered that. I think you have to believe in yourself enough to wait for an opportunity that is a better fit. Otherwise, you could easily waste several years in an unfulfilling situation.
That’s a great point, Will. So, I guess it was about this time that you happened upon First Command…
That’s right, and happened upon is a good way of putting it. I attended a local career fair in Alexandria, Virginia and happened to meet Jayne Whaley-Hill, the marketing manager for the local First Command office. She asked me if I would be willing to apply for a recruiting position. Given that I spent 21 years as a recruiter in the Marines, I was pretty comfortable agreeing to that.
I guess it’s safe to assume that the interview went well?
Well, yes, but I had to get over one more large, unforeseen hurdle. I was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to have surgery, so I actually did my initial phone interview with First Command Director of Advisor Operations Mark Diunizio from my hospital bed. Two weeks later, he interviewed me face-to-face and hired me on the spot, four months before my scheduled retirement from the military. Thankfully, my cancer has now been in remission for two years.
Wow! What a tumultuous time that must have been for you and your family. It’s wonderful to hear that you’re doing so well, but I get the sense that you might have prepared for the transition a little differently if you had it to do all over again. Can you share some of your hard-earned advice with others who may be preparing now for the transition from active duty to second career?
I would love to because, you’re right, there are a lot of things I learned or stumbled upon that I wish I had known earlier. So, here are some tips based on my experience:
- Have your finances in order. It’s important to have an account earmarked specifically for the expenses associated with transition. I would suggest saving an amount equal to roughly six months of income. Being financially prepared goes a long way toward reducing the stress associated with a mid-life career change.
- Talk to friends and colleagues who are going through the transition at the same time as you. I never really did this, and I think it was mostly because I didn’t want to open up and acknowledge my doubts and insecurities. But everyone else is feeling the same way and it can be cathartic to talk some of these things out.
- Get your social media house in order. That doesn’t just mean having an updated LinkedIn profile, though you definitely should. It also means making sure that any other social media presence you have is consistent with the image you want to project. You should assume that companies will check out your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts – so don’t be one of those people who shares too much!
- Take advantage of the fantastic, free mentoring program offered by American Corporate Partners (ACP). My mentor coached me through the interviewing process, answered all of my questions and even became a trusted friend who attended my military retirement ceremony!
- Look into the military’s Career Skills Program. It allows you (with permission) to join a prospective employer six months before your transition and test drive the experience.
- Don’t confine yourself to only one type of job. I didn’t even want to consider a job in the financial services industry and now I’m happily employed by First Command. Talk to anyone that wants to talk to you.
- Make sure you fit with the culture of any company you consider working for so that you can grow with the company over time.
You weren’t kidding, Will – you really did learn a lot in the course of your journey. Thanks so much for taking the time to share – and congratulations on finding a second career that seems to be such a great fit for you.
If you’re preparing to separate or retire from the military and like the idea of staying connected to the military community, you may want to consider a career with First Command. To learn more about this opportunity, visit https://www.firstcommand.com/careers/.