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Hard truth is better than kind fiction when it comes to veteran jobs and spouse employment. While empathy and encouragement are needed by job seekers, that stuff doesn’t actually help you get a job. Hard truth, honest feedback and solid training help veterans and spouses get jobs.

Who better to ask for those hard truths than our fellow veterans and spouses? To save you the trouble (and possible embarrassment), I attended WEST 2024 — one of the largest defense industry conferences in the country, hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA — last week.

I talked to veterans and hiring managers employed in the defense industry at companies such as Raytheon, Ultra Maritime, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton. I wanted to know what kind of hard truths they had to learn during their own job hunt and what they wanted to pass along to help you move forward. Here is what they had to say:

  1. Getting your first job after the military has an element of luck. The harder you work, the luckier you get.
  2. Don’t start your transition by writing a resume. Instead, write down a list of all the defense industry products you used and find out who manufactured them. For example, that Toughbook you are using on the ship or in the field was manufactured by Panasonic. Stop by their booth and tell them about the user experience. It starts a conversation they want to have.
  3. You can’t get a good job just by wanting it. If you want a great job after the service, you have to seek it out for yourself. Good jobs are not randomly assigned. You have to work at getting a job like it is your job.
  4. You must know the players. Defense companies and the military are partners. Partners talk. Partners are also supposed to pay each other the respect of knowing what they do. Certain defense companies are known for working closely with the Air Force, Navy, Space Force, the Marine Corps, the Army or the Coast Guard. Which ones are relevant to you?
  5. Not everything will happen according to your plan. Even if you have your plans laid out years in advance, stuff happens. Your parents get old. The market crashes. There is an epidemic that keeps people home for two years. You can never stop adapting to what is.
  6. You aren’t as unique as you think. Everyone is telling themselves that a long job hunt or flat-out unemployment won’t happen to them “because I’m different.” You are not different. Transition is hard on everyone in pretty much the same ways.
  7. Don’t let your certifications expire. Even if you don’t think you are going to need them, keep your certs current. Military certs are hard to earn. And you’ll hate yourself in the morning if all you had to do was mail in a paper on time.
  8. Get some “Pentagon Stink” on you before you leave the military. People avoid Washington, D.C., because of the traffic or whatever. But it is no big benefit to your transition if you don’t know how things in the Pentagon work.
  9. It’s hard to start networking if you don’t change your beliefs about networking. You don’t need to talk to a whole lotta people. But you have to start talking to people now.
  10. Networking is not foreign to you. You think you have never networked in the military, but you have. In the military, networking looks more like mentoring. It looks like professional development. It looks like your boss talking over what schools you could go to or what assignments or locations might be good. All that is networking.
  11. Your service reputation is your real resume. Where you have been and what you have done and how well you did it matter more than a lot of words on a paper no one will ever read.
  12. The younger you are, the greater the likelihood you will be hired for your technical skills. So go to the conferences, and you will be amazed how many are hiring at firms, such as Sealevel and Spectro Cloud.
  13. The older you are, the greater the likelihood you will be hired for your relationships. So go to the conferences and you will be amazed how many people you recognize from your service career.
  14. Pick a job where you can be there for at least a year. It looks bad if you are changing jobs all the time.
  15. The most powerful people you know are not necessarily the biggest help. The best mentors and peers to talk to are those who are 2-5 years ahead of you. They are more likely to have been hired at a job you could do, too.
  16. You have probably never heard the name of your next employer. So many companies work in the defense space that it is impossible to know everyone, even if you are an expert. Some of them have great people and a great mission, such as the Defense Innovation Unit. Meet them.
  17. It is hard to deal with a new identity. Some days, you are going to miss being in uniform.
  18. You are starting over again. Being an E-8 or an O-6 does not matter that much. Being humble and ready to learn are the attitudes to put out there.
  19. Be selective about your applications. Apply to jobs where you think you are going to be in the top 10% of applicants. Otherwise, you are wasting time.
  20. You don’t know how (physically) broken you are. You think you are fine in those last years of your career, but you are probably running on adrenaline. Give yourself time between the service and your next job to rest and heal.
  21. Be the first to apply. A deadline is not a deadline when it comes to a job listing. Just because the job closes on a certain day doesn’t mean they will wait for that day. Some companies will only capture a certain number of applicants before they close. Set up your alerts and notifications so you are first to see new jobs.
  22. The sense of mission fulfillment is difficult to find out here. True, true.
  23. Your first job won’t be your last. Everyone wants the perfect thing. Get something. Get your foot in the door. You can get to exactly the right thing later.
  24. Not everyone who works in the defense industry served in the military. In fact, most of them did not.
  25. Be hypothesis driven. You are going to have a hypothesis when you get out of the military about what is going to make you happy. And then you are going to test it. What do you want to do? What role will you play? Where do you want to live? Who do you want to be with? Continue to solve for the variable.
  26. The power works differently out here. The biggest difference for veterans (in civilian companies) is learning to interact with civilians in an informal hierarchy vs. formal hierarchy. Learning the difference between informal power vs. formal power is everything. Also, the oldest person in the room is not necessarily in charge.
  27. It is possible to do everything right — your resume, your networking, your interview — and still not get the job. Sometimes you can do your best, and you aren’t the right one. It happens, and it hurts. And don’t get me started on internal candidates.
  28. Your boss and your shipmates will go on without you the next day. Transition only moves in one direction.
  29. You are mortal. Your time on this Earth is finite. What are you going to make of it? You better get started.

You better get started on your job hunt because we need you out here in the civilian world. At the Veteran Employment Project, we train the best competitors for the best jobs. Along with all the hard truths you need to know, we have encouragement for you and faith in you. Keep moving forward.

Jacey Eckhart is Military.com‘s transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website, SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at [email protected].

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Transitioning military, veterans and spouses may be qualified for the job, but they are missing the secrets of civilian hiring. Find out everything you need to know with our FREE master class series, including our next class. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page or reach out on LinkedIn Jacey Eckhart.

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