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How Should Military Retirees Negotiate Salary? Three Experts Weigh In

Featured Image: Force Master Chief Mo Pollard, Commander, Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, arrives for his retirement ceremony at Naval Base Kitsap Bangor. Pollard retired after 32 years of service in the United States Navy. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News. Veteran, U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

Military pay and benefits are one of the most transparent compensation systems in America. A cursory Google search will provide ample charts showing exactly what you earn if you are, say, an E-6 with five years of service.

Indeed, in nearly all circumstances, your compensation in the military is directly tied to your time in grade and time in service.

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Because military pay is more or less automatic, (testing, leadership schools and promotion boards notwithstanding,) veterans, and especially retirees, are often confounded by the opaque moving targets of corporate salary structures.

What’s worse, the Department of Defense does a poor job of preparing transitioning servicemembers to evaluate if a company’s compensation package is fair, and how to negotiate it if it isn’t.

One thing is certain: initial salary negotiations are crucial during civilian job interviews because every subsequent promotion, bonus and raise sits atop this foundation.

But veterans aren’t alone. A ThinkWhy study from 2019 revealed that out of 500,000 job searchers, 64 percent took the first salary offer that was presented to them! These people are, over a lifetime, leaving thousands, and sometimes millions, of unclaimed dollars on the table.

So how can military retirees and veterans find out what they are worth and approach their first civilian salary negotiations with confidence?

I asked three leading experts to weigh in and provide their guidance:

Dr. Jessica Sapp – Associate Professor School of Health Sciences, American Public University

The person needs to look at salary data for the position. They can start with salary data provided on,,, or

You can also look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or industry-specific data that may be released by a related professional organization. It’s not about what anyone makes at their last job; it’s more about your skills and comparable market value when you are negotiating.

If you’re asked about your previous salary (which is such bad practice, but commonly used), you can explain how your military salary isn’t a direct correlation to your value in the civilian job market. However, if you are compelled to give this information, you must include ALL benefits including the cost of living, housing allowance, uniform/clothing allowance, military covered health insurance, etc. These are all benefits that are usually paid, partially or fully, by the employee at most jobs.

Michael Zacchea – Executive Director, United States Veterans Chamber of Commerce

There’s a lot out there about civilian to military equivalency for job and pay purposes.

A good exercise would be to compare hourly compensation of an equivalent civilian job based on a 2000 hour work year.

Then add in premiums for professional qualifications and degrees. Include healthcare costs and federal VHA depending on where the job is. The veteran doesn’t want to give away value to arrive at the value of the veteran’s labor and expertise. If the veteran is in a high-demand/low-supply field (like medicine or a specialized skill) add in a premium. Most veterans don’t have a sense of what the market will bear for their labor.

Professor Debra Bechtel – Director of Business Programs at Baker College

First, remember this: Location matters! The salaries for the same positions in Washington D.C. and Columbus, Ohio, will be very different.

With location in mind, vets should visit and to see what compensation range exists for their preferred position. Actually, will go so far as to let you type in the job description to help you dial in the proper salary range.

Another thing to remember is that a veteran may feel uncomfortable asking for more money; no doubt the act is a new experience. But for civilian companies, it’s just business. If corporations can save money, they will. Hiring managers will often offer salaries five to seven percent lower than what they are really willing to pay.

Having said that, it might be a good rule to take whatever the offered salary is for the position and add seven percent.

One final thought, LinkedIn has really matured over the past five years to offer a robust job search function. LinkedIn Premium, which costs about $30 a month, is well worth the money for the tools it gives you to compare the qualifications of other applicants and see salary information.

Mistakes Were Made When I Left Active Duty

As a veteran, my first position after 10 years of active duty service offered $50,000 a year and a company car. That was more money than I had ever seen. After all, in 2007, the pay for an E-5 with 10 years of military service was around $39,000 a year.

Three years later, in 2010, I accepted a director position that offered $90,000 a year. Because it was already such a large pay increase over what I had been making at my previous job, and certainly more than I made in the military, I failed to negotiate. I don’t know how much money I left on the table.

I urge my fellow transitioning veterans and retirees to research the compensation ranges for your ideal position in your region. Consider the benefits that the company is offering, know your worth, and, with an initial offer in hand, have the courage to make a counteroffer.

Your military training and experience, not to mention any education that you have earned along the way, make you a formidable candidate.

Congrats on your successful transition into the civilian world. Now go get what you’re worth.

Note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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