What I’ve Learned after 10-Years as a Civilian

I recently celebrated my 10th-year as a civilian, having retired from 20-years of Naval service in 2001. Without seeming too pretentious, I thought I’d throw together a bullet list of what I’ve learned.  My hope is that other senior enlisted or officers retiring from the military understand what it’ll be like, while also helping non-military employers understand what we ex-military types are thinking.

  • Civilian companies fire people left and right, without warning 

Look, companies just don’t fire people without a good reason. Sure you could lose your job and downsizing happens, but it isn’t arbitrary and rampant.  There are almost always warning signs.  Don’t let fear of losing your job drive your life, but be prepared should this happen, cause it will, even to top performers.  Especially in the finance industry.  I’ve been with four companies since 2001 but never left the team. Mergers and acquisitions are part of the industry, but aren’t always a bad thing.  I’ve ended up better off with every move.  It’s been a wild ride, but it’s all been for the better.

  • Not every “Sailor” in the civilian world is salvageable

The biggest challenge I had to overcome when I became a manager was learning the employee provisioning process.  Hiring someone isn’t too hard; your military experience really helps you pick out the best person for the job.  Letting someone go was harder for me.  In the Navy, I was taught everyone is salvageable and as a leader, it was my job to turn around the low performers.  Out “here” in the civilian world, you don’t always have a lot of time to turn someone around.  A problem employee could also be dragging the team down.  That impacts your performance and your boss (and their boss) will notice.  You should, however, ensure your employees are taken care of.  The civilian world has pay problems too and when you go to bat for your employees, they’ll never forget that.

  • I don’t care how many years of military experience you have, you don’t know anything

You’re not the Senior Chief anymore, so you don’t know what’s best.  Ask! Communicate!  The biggest help for me was when I found a few senior staff with years of civilian experience to mentor me towards better civilian management skills. Each one of them offers something different and they help is immeasurable.  Find someone you can talk to about your plans or ideas.  Go to HR when you have conflicts or need performance advice.  They are there to help, but you have to ask.  Sure, HR has to keep the company’s best interest in mind, but they have lot of resources available to assist veterans transitioning to the civilian world.

  • You can double or even triple your salary at retirement.

Sure, moneys not everything, but it is important. I remember, vividly, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) coordinator looking at my salary expectation and flatly telling me “you won’t get that.”  I got it at my first offer.  Use that kind of feedback as motivation.  Be realistic however.  While you should never take the first offer, don’t go crazy and bump it up by $20k.  There’s a range, simply ask for a number between the low and the middle.  Start there.  If you have the skills and experience, you’ll get a fair offer.

  • There is more to an offer letter than salary

If you’re lucky enough to get interviewed and start the offer process, don’t hesitate to ask for things other than salary.  Extra vacation, full year consideration for bonuses, and education benefits are just some of the things to add.  Remember, you don’t get anything you don’t ask for and HR teams expect a negotiation.  Remember, everything is negotiable.

  • Civilian companies are less bureaucratic and much more stable than government contractor jobs

I had two choices when I retired; military contractor or civilian database administrator (DBA).  I chose DBA to get away from the government bureaucracy and tenuous employment stability. SURPRISE!  Both worlds have the same thing and it can be worse as civilian.  Still, I’m glad I made the choice to go completely civilian.

  • Put aside your pride and get a VA disability rating

Some of my Navy friends were against having the medical record reviewed for possible VA disability rating.  “I don’t need a handout” seemed to be the repeated theme.  GET THE REVIEW AND APPLY FOR A RATING.  That bad back or arm you broke during military service may not hurt at 35, but trust me, it’ll be screaming at 50 and you’ll wish you had medical coverage. Sure, your civilian job will have health insurance, but VA can be a great back up, maybe even your primary. You are eligible for this and you should use it.  Plus, if you’re rated at a certain level, you’ll get faster access to VA services, which are much improved, but hard to access quickly without a rating.  The benefits, especially college education benefits for your spouse and children, are the states way of saying “thanks.”  It’s also extremely humbling going into a VA facility and seeing the injured young men and women from our recent wars.  God bless them all.

  • Get a college degree but don’t panic if you don’t have one

I’m speaking only from an IT perspective on this, since that’s what I do.  While I’d tell anyone to obtain a college degree during your service or use your GI bill after you separate, it’s not a “show-stopper” if you don’t have one.   Certifications, especially Microsoft’s, are a great way to overcome the lack of a college degree.  Once hired, also tie in getting a degree with a promotion.  It’s not unheard of for an employer to agree to a manager position or more salary if you graduate.

  • Max out the 401k and take full advantage of your employers matching contribution

I am startled at how quickly 10-years can pass.  I’m also pleasantly surprised, even with the market downturn, how my 401k has grown.  I really wish I would’ve started earlier in my military career, but thanks to my generous employer matching; I’ll be able to enjoy my retirement.  Employer matching contribution is free money.  Make sure you get the most of it.

  • Specialize but don’t isolate yourself

I tell this to all the people who work for me or look for advice, even those without military experience.  Find that one IT skill and be better than anyone else.  SharePoint, .NET, Windows server, or whatever you really love doing.  Hone that single skill instead of trying to be all things to everyone.  Still, be careful and don’t just focus entirely on that one thing to the point where it isolates you from other opportunities.  Know other disciplines and never stop learning. If you’re still 3-years out from retirement, pick a career path and work towards it with specialized training.  I started as a SQL DBA, got promoted to a infrastructure manager, moved to a service desk manager, and now I’m back to managing IT infrastructure operations.  Really have had a lot o fun along the way.

  • Learn to say “No”

My biggest fault is I’m too helpful.  If someone is having an IT problem, I want to stop what I’m doing and assist.  It leads to me working on things that aren’t critical while the really important things I should be doing wait. This is not the best way to further your career, especially if those important things came from your boss.  Facilitate assistance through delegation and communicate that you have some priority tasks that you need to finish, but someone from your team will help the person in need.   This goes for your boss, too.  Tell them you don’t have the bandwidth and back it up with the facts. They’ll reassign what’s needed.

There’s more, I’m sure, but this is what comes to mind from my experience.  I’m also learning more each day. If you would like to add your experiences, please use the comment section.  Cheers!



About Doug Sigmon

IT Helpdesk manager in southern California. Love technology, gadgets, and golf.
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