This article, “Invest In Your Career,” is the last in a five-article series that discusses the Five Fundamentals of Fiscal Fitness. The Five Fundamentals were designed as a basic starting point to help you take control of your finances. If you do nothing else, following the Five Fundamentals will help you ensure that you are able to live within your means. There should be more to your financial plan than the Five Fundamentals, but following them allows you to move beyond living paycheck to paycheck, and focus on longer term financial goals, such as retirement planning, or saving for a specific goal, like sending your children to college.
This article will discuss:
- What happens to a lot of people over their career and during their transition
- Why you need to make sure your career plan corresponds with your Five Year Plan.
- Why you should invest in your career
- How you can invest in your career
First, a caveat: This article is specifically for people who plan to directly go to work after leaving active duty. Many people I know take time off (well deserved, perhaps), and might still see some benefit from reading this article. However, this article’s focus is on people who intend to parlay their experience and education into maximizing their career’s potential.
What Happens During My Career Transition?
The short answer is…what you make of it. Let me explain with a couple of examples from my Navy tour at FedEx. I was a Training With Industry Fellow, assigned to FedEx Express for an entire year. During that year, I learned a LOT. However, one of the most valuable lessons that I took away came from two stories of military officers and how their value proposition changed when they retired.
Captain A was a Navy pilot, who had gone to the Navy’s postgraduate school for business and financial management. He had done multiple policy tours in Washington D.C. at the Navy Staff, working specifically on long-term budgeting and planning. He finished his Navy career as the comptroller for the U.S. Transportation Command. During this time, he was building his resume for the widest aperture of possibilities and establishing relationships that would prove to his benefit. At the same time, FedEx had realized that it had a crucial need…it had no long-term plan for aircraft procurement. During its first 30 years, FedEx followed a simple business model:
- Need more aircraft
- Buy the cheapest aircraft available
- Put a ton of money into refurbishment and maintenance
However, this strategy was starting to fail because it was just getting too expensive. Eventually, Captain A and FedEx realized that he had a skill set that FedEx desperately needed, and he was brought onboard as a vice president. During my time, he was promoted to senior vice president and was doing very well.
Colonel B was an Army quartermaster and retired to the Memphis area after his military retirement. I didn’t know too much about his career, but I knew that he commanded at various levels, including at the company and battalion levels, and I believe his last tour was as a depot commander. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted after his army career, but he looked at FedEx. They offered him a job with a salary that was satisfactory, so he took it. It took him about 2 weeks to become utterly miserable for several reasons.
First, he was an ‘individual contributor,’ or someone who has a cubicle. For a man used to leading troops, this was a major adjustment. Second, he found out that FedEx hired him at the low end of his pay band (for those of you who remember the civilian NSPS system, that’s what FedEx uses), so he wasn’t happy that he wasn’t getting as much as other people were. Third, it took him over 10 years to get to his first management position, where he supervised 6 people. He had commanded more people as a lieutenant straight out of college than he was managing ten years into his second career!
Two drastically different stories, right? Here’s what I took away:
- Your value proposition is everything. What is value proposition? Simply put, it’s the perceived value that other people believe you bring to the table. Whether it’s to a prospective employer, client, co-worker, subordinate, or whomever–your value proposition is what they believe you can do.
- Your value proposition directly depends on how you value yourself. Forget the stories like “The Blind Side” where someone finds potential in another person and brings it out of them. That doesn’t happen to military people. If you don’t take the time to define the value that you can bring to an organization or to another person, forget it.
- Your value proposition also depends on your ability to convey it. The first example is a resume. A well-crafted resume can get you in the door, but then it can get lost in a pile of equally well-crafted resumes. Captain A never needed a resume…his relationships and professional reputation got him into FedEx without it. However, if your resume only talks about what you did in the military, prospective civilian employers will probably not understand how it will help them unless you translate your skills in a way they can appreciate and understand.
A great resource that you should check out is USAA’s transition center that lists a host of great pages, advice, and resources for members of the military that are transitioning out of service to civilian careers.
Your Career and Five-Year Plan
As I previously mentioned, your career moves need to correspond with your five-year plan. Post-military, many families try to focus on one objective, like staying local or moving to a place where they can afford a less expensive house. All of those priorities should be captured in your five-year plan so that you can focus your career-related efforts to support those goals. Done properly, your five-year plan will help you conceptualize how much effort you need to put into your career, and where that effort should go.
For example, if your top priority is staying local, and you want any job that meets a certain minimum salary, then your actions will be much different than if you’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and you need to go back to school to get certain credentials to get started. However, even if you find yourself to be a ‘work-to-live’ kind of person, you still need to invest in your career, and I’ll explain why.
Why You Should Invest In Your Career
However you see your post-military life, it’s important for you to invest some time, effort, and/or money into it. Here are several reasons why:
Improve your value proposition.
Your prospective employer (or clients) will look at you and determine your relationship as a direct reflection of your ability to help solve their problems. Spending the appropriate time and effort on your skill sets, credentials, education, and professional reputation will help you improve your value proposition.
Meet minimum job requirements.
Many career fields require a minimum level of education or a certification, including professions who didn’t require them a generation ago. In the military, we go through a lot of training to perform a certain job function. We might even get ‘qualified’ through our professional qualification standards. Those qualifications are entered into our service records so that future commands understand what we bring to the table.
However, a certification is usually a nationally, or internationally, recognized set of credentials that you can bring with you for any prospective employer to recognize. Some professions, such as law or accounting, have registration or licensing requirements at the state level as well. Even if you’re the right person to solve an organization’s problems, without the proper license, registration, or certification, you might be on the outside looking in.
Stand out from the pack.
You might find yourself competing with a lot of highly qualified people for the same job. Your military background, combined with the requisite certifications, might be enough to put you over the top…provided you spend enough time and effort on communicating how your military experience will help an organization solve its problems or reach its goals.
Even if you land the dream job, you need to recognize that permanent jobs are a thing of the past. Even in the federal government, there is always a chance that your position can be eliminated through a reduction-in-force (RIF). While there are no government statistics on how many jobs people hold over their lifetimes, at least one estimate states that you can expect to change civilian jobs every 3-4 years.
This is especially true for military personnel who are testing the job market and trying to establish a baseline for their job expectations. You might get lucky on the first try and find your perfect job, but you should probably keep sharpening your skill sets based on the probability that you won’t.
Even if you have 100% job security, maintaining a ‘steady strain’ approach to your education will help you keep current as things change. Policies, laws, and other changes need to be reflected in your ‘toolbox.’
How You Should Invest In Your Career
Now that we’ve determined that you should probably invest in your career, let’s see how you can do so.
Professional Licenses & Certifications.
I’ll include formal education in this, although many careers don’t need a degree…you’ll have to determine that yourself. However, many career fields require certifications, including professions who didn’t require them a generation ago. In the military, we go through a lot of training to perform a certain job function. We might even get ‘qualified’ through our professional qualification standards.
Those qualifications are entered into our service records so that future commands understand what we bring to the table. However, a certification is usually a nationally, or internationally, recognized set of credentials that you can bring with you for any prospective employer to recognize. Without a certification, you might be on the outside looking in.
However, receiving the desired certification isn’t enough. One of the biggest trends in the workplace is for professions to require continuing education in order to maintain a certification. This ensures that professionals don’t stop learning just because they got a credential.
Would you like to have your taxes prepared by someone who hasn’t taken a tax class in 10 years? How would you know that they’re up to date on the current tax laws? More and more, certifications require continuing education to maintain competence as standards change. As you focus on obtaining a credential, pay attention to the continuing education requirements to make sure that you’re capable of meeting those as well.
Sometimes, your career doesn’t depend on a certification or maintaining a competency. For example, as a Supply Corps Officer, I’ve found myself in many different jobs for which there was no formal training–I just had to jump into the job and start solving the problems at hand. Over time, this develops your professional reputation. If you look over the course of your career, you might find that you’ve developed a similar professional reputation for yourself. Take a look to see whether it’s time to:
- Focus on developing your professional reputation within your local community
- Start talking with previous peers and mentors so that you can have recommendations lined up in advance
- Help others out by providing recommendations for them
- Determine what collateral duties you’ve performed that are related to where you want to be. For example, being the treasurer of the Navy Ball committee might be a desirable ‘bullet’ that you could put into a resume for a non-profit organization.
Talk to mentors and other peers who have gone through your situation.
You can go through all of these steps in isolation and find out that you did everything wrong. Why not just talk to a former boss or colleague who has already taken those steps and ask what worked and what didn’t? You might find yourself working on a credential that no one cares about, or pouring a ton of money into a degree that isn’t worth it, when you should focus on updating your LinkedIn profile (highly recommended regardless of what you do), or perfecting your resume (take a class or talk to an expert if you can find one). The more you communicate, the more opportunities seem to appear.
I hope you liked the Five Fundamentals of Fiscal Fitness.
Below are links to the other articles in the Five Fundamental series.
- Fundamental #1: Pay Yourself First
- Fundamental #2: Maintain Enough Liquidity
- Fundamental #3: Pay Off All Credit Cards & Consumer Debt
- Fundamental #4: Own the Right-Sized Home (& Mortgage)
- Fundamental #5: Invest In Your Career
Caveat: Five Fundamentals of Fiscal Fitness is a money management philosophy created by Bert Whitehead, a prominent thought-leader in the fee-only financial planning world. Bert’s philosophy has been standardized by the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners (ACP), a non-profit membership of like-minded, fee-only financial planners dedicated to helping clients avoid the pitfalls of the financial services industry. Disclosure: I am a dues-paying member of ACP, and fully believe in the five fundamentals of fiscal fitness. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about ACP and its philosophies.