Military Service as Career Training Ground

Military personnel repairing helicopter

One of the most enduring career advancement traditions is entering the military to "learn a trade". Even in our increasingly high-tech world of work, while many young adults head directly to college out of high school, for many the right choice is military service. Their strategy? Get the hands-on experience, rigorous work habits and a subsidized education to accelerate their careers when they finish their service.

Been there, done that

Bill Taylor and Jon Nash are two professionals who headed to military service directly out of high school. Today Bill is an on-premise manager leading one of our largest aviation industry accounts in Tucson, Arizona. Jon is a senior recruiter for EASi, an Aerotek company, working in our White Marsh, Maryland offices and specializing in finding and placing engineers and designers.

Both Bill and Jon have “been there, done that” when it comes to leveraging military service as a career springboard. We spoke with them to get their perspective on how it shaped their own careers, and what insights they could share about the thousands of skilled tradespeople they place each year who have followed their same career strategy.

Straight out of high school

Bill Taylor knows first-hand what these early career decisions mean. Graduating from high school, he went straight into the military. Over his nearly 30-year Air Force career, Bill advanced from aircraft maintenance and operations specialist to quality management, while notching his BS in Human Resource Management and MBA along the way. We asked Bill for his  take on the opportunities early military service affords people entering the jobs economy.

“Personally and professionally speaking, it was ideal. I went into the Air Force seeking two things: to acquire a trade at the management level and come out with the educational credentials to help me excel in it. The plan worked”, Bill recounts.

Jon Nash’s early career in the military was motivated by a different strategy. “I was born and raised in Baltimore. When I was a senior in high school I knew I didn’t want to go to college, yet, at least. I also knew I didn’t want to just stay home and start working. I took the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Test) and it suggested I should pursue a career in air traffic control. An opportunity in that direction opened up in aviation operations and when they told me I’d be based in Hawaii I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”.

Skills in demand

We asked Bill if the current jobs economy was a good one for the types of skilled tradespeople he places when they leave the military to join the workforce.

“Yes, definitely. In particular the aviation industry is looking hard for skilled trades. I recently spoke with an A&P mechanic at one of our capstone events. These are like job fairs for service personnel that are 90 days away from leaving the military. This gentleman I met was a skilled logistics specialist working in warehousing. He provided his resume to us on a Thursday, he had a job offer in his hands on Friday and we started him in his new role — an almost mirror-image of the job he was doing in the service — the following Monday.”

John told us a similar story about the demand for talent. “Yes, we’re seeing a growing demand across so many different industries especially for highly qualified professionals. What’s interesting about the most successful candidates coming out of the military is they have a game plan and they’re following it. They were smart and got in-demand and marketable certifications — all tuition-free, by the way — while in the military. Everything from a commercial driver’s license to HAZMAT and OSHA certifications. Having skills and certifications gives candidates a powerful advantage upon exiting the military.”

That certain something special

We were curious about the candidates themselves who are entering the jobs market fresh from military careers and the unique skill they bring to the table.

“Well, people are people, but there does seem to be something that sets them apart, in some cases. Maybe they’re a little better accustomed to working in highly structured environments. This tends to make them more dependable,” Bill said.

Bill continued, “But it’s also not just about following orders. In fact, sometimes we see ex-service people taking a sense of responsibility to a higher level. They come out into the marketplace with a strong sense for owning problems and solutions.”

“We placed an A&P mechanic not long ago who had spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan working on helicopters. He’d been used to working in some fairly extreme and often difficult conditions. On the job, he became the guy who kept clocking overtime even when other people weren’t. He didn’t ask a lot of questions about what to do, he had a natural taste for initiative, and he took it. We placed him as a contractor and within about nine months he was the lead A&P mechanic on his shift. Soon he was working directly with the floor supervisors and leading ten other mechanics and was hired on by the company. These are the kind of guys that make us proud to be doing what we do.”

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

It seems to us that one of the biggest challenges for skilled professionals entering the workforce from their military careers is some degree of concern for the unknown. Jon Nash agreed.

“We’re humans, we naturally fear the unknown. If you went straight from high school into the military and come out five, ten or more years later you’re naturally anxious about entering the civilian workforce. I often tell vets, they should ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’. During my time in the military, I faced some challenging situations. But I tell them it takes a different kind of bravery than we were used to in the military. The nerve you need to take this leap into the unknown.”

Jon offered more first-hand career advice. “Another thing we often talk about with vets transitioning into the civilian workforce is sometimes it’s necessary to take a short step back to position yourself to take a big step forward. This was my own professional experience when I first transitioned.”

Translating experience

Jon had more advice for all job seekers, whether fresh out of the military or not. “A lot of new Vets, or anybody really, entering the civilian workforce feel they might not have the relevant experience to get the ideal job they’re looking for. But it’s often just a matter of how you describe your experiences on your resume. Recently I was working with an engineer candidate who was fresh out of the service. He had extensive experience working on avionics systems for the F15 fighter jet. He was reluctant to include it on his resume, fearing it would appear out of date. He interviewed at a couple of places without success.”

“I got to know this guy, and I could tell he was an extremely strong troubleshooter. I suggested he rethink how he positioned and described his work experience in the military, focusing more on the skills acquired and talents developed. He did that, and we placed him soon after.”

“Another candidate we recently worked with was an Air Force reservist. He was up against some serious local talent competition for the job. We suggested he reposition his experience focusing heavily on his military rank and the amount of responsibility he shouldered — his demonstrated leadership skills. Our write-up got him a phone interview and he was hired on the basis of that call.”

“The key is translating your military experience into terms civilian employers get and respond to. You’ve got the experience; it really is how you package it up that makes all the difference. “

Uncle Sam wants you (to succeed)!

Like Jon, Bill Taylor was adamant about the key piece of advice for people using the military as their career training ground: “Take full and complete advantage of it all while you’re in the service. Get the training, the hands-on experience, the certifications and education while you can. The military pays for it all when you’re in the service, and when you get out, there’s the GI Bill. And, there are numerous veterans support programs and most communities have a ‘one stop’ place where tradespeople leaving the military can jump-start their entry into the civilian workforce.”

Jon chimed in, “In my personal experience when you’re in the military and you’re working on rising in rank and responsibility, you better either have a degree or be working towards it. You can’t beat 100% tuition assistance, and in my case, I took full advantage. I estimated that when you factor in all the training, education and certifications I received in the military, it’s a considerable investment.”

“That’s the crux of it. The military invests in you to be better, and that’s how you help the team. But at the end of the day, it’s you who ends up with those skills and talent. And the credentials to help you succeed when you leave to join the workforce.

If you’re a skilled professional, Veteran or civilian, we invite you to check out our current career opportunities and to create your free Aerotek career account today.