How To Transition Into the Private Sector

After retiring from the Air Force the author worked for a small company to learn how businesses are run. Here are his tips for making the transition to private life after retiring from the military or law enforcement.

How To Transition Into the Private Sector

Transitioning to the private sector requires several critical steps to ensure a smooth  move. (Photo: NSSF)

Since this issue of Tactical Retailer deals with military and police veterans, I thought it would be a good opportunity to pass along some observations from my retirement from the Air Force 13 years ago. I wanted to go into business for myself but had no idea how to go about it. The best thing I did was to go to work for a small company where I learned how businesses are run.

Whether you spent four or 35 years in government service, it’s extremely rare for someone to garner enough business experience to make a smooth transition into the private sector. Quite simply, the government runs differently. But that can be an advantage if you actually understand how the government does business. 

Whether it’s how to operate or repair a piece of equipment, or how the acquisition system works, the private sector pays handsomely for that experience. Another attribute veterans bring to the table is leadership experience that can open doors for you that you never expected, such as a management or executive fast track.

The military offers transition assistance for separating members. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s not going to cover all the bases. By all means, attend and listen to the various lessons offered.

One important resource available during transition assistance is the creation of a resume. You’ll definitely need one, but my experience is that the jobs I took after retirement were arranged through relationships and not blindly sending resumes out for different jobs. Networking is crucial. Keep in touch with those you served with, and develop a network of associates you can reach out to for mentorship and assistance. 

Likewise, help out others when possible, but don’t vouch for someone you know isn’t reliable. It will wind up being a bad mark on your reputation. I had to learn this the hard way, I thought I was helping out a guy I’ve known for years who needed a job. Unfortunately, he had a pattern of moving from one job to the next, burning bridges as he went. The signs were there. I just didn’t acknowledge them.

Also, be wary of con artists. Sure, some want to separate you from your money, but most you run across want to use you to establish their own street cred. You bring not only experience with you, but also authenticity. They will befriend you and use their association with you for their own ends. They often will drop a lot of names during introductions using their associations to bypass normal vetting.

Unfortunately, the closer to the tip of the spear you are while serving, the more susceptible you are to this issue. The personnel in many special operations organizations are handpicked. All are vetted and trustworthy, from the assaulter to the clerk typist. Those who are not are shown the door very quickly, so they begin to expect that everyone they meet is also trustworthy, not realizing that lots of people want to befriend them in order to leverage the relationship.

One would think that law-enforcement members would be wary of the influence of a grifter, but I’ve seen it happen to just as many of them as ex-military folks. Everyone likes flattery and the con artist will use every trick in the book to establish your trust.

Examine every business opportunity using the old adage, “If it’s too good to be true, it generally is.” Size people up and, just like you did when you were in, wargame them. Look at the plusses and minuses and consider second and third order effects. For instance, if there’s a great opportunity to move across the country for a new job, don’t forget to take a look at what else is available there for you and your family. Also consider the consequences of moving there if the job doesn’t work out. I’ve seen several veterans move their families to a new area and the company either folded up right after they got there or other issues led to unemployment with zero alternative prospects.

Research the cost of living in new areas. There are an untold number of opportunities in the National Capitol Region, but traffic and housing costs are major factors in determining where you can afford to live. You may end up with a two-hour commute each way to work. Likewise, schools for your children and the availability of jobs for your spouse are major considerations.

When searching for jobs, be realistic in your expectations. You’ve gained a lot of experience, but it’s been in one area of expertise. You can’t expect to jump right in at an upper level without first learning about a new industry. I’ve seen special operators preparing to retire and expecting to become CEOs of companies. I ask them if it would be okay for a bank president to become a Ranger battalion or SEAL Team commander based on his years of experience. That usually helps put the situation in perspective.

A couple of quick notes on salary issues. Some will walk away from government service with a retirement package such as medical coverage and a monthly payment. Those can become negotiating points with a potential employer, but they can work both for and against you. For example, you might be able to negotiate a higher rate of pay because you don’t need a medical plan from the employer.

Alternatively, many government contractors know how much money you make in retirement and offer an offset, bringing you just above your former government rate of pay. Don’t fall for that. Explain to them that your retirement from government service is completely separate from the work you will do for them. Experience got you here, but it’s not going to subsidize your work for them.

The transition to the private sector can be scary, but with a little preparation you can make the most of your experience and offer yourself and your family a rewarding future.


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