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Leaving the Military? Spend Two Years Preparing for Your Civilian Career

Podcast with Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and
William Balcerskialumnus, American Military University, and Facilities Protect Supervisor, Lockheed Martin

Leaving the military and transitioning to the civilian workforce isn’t easy and requires hard work and preparation. In this episode, AMU professor Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to William Balcerski, who successfully started a new civilian career after 30 years of active duty and reserve experience in the U.S. Coast Guard. Learn why servicemembers need two years to prepare for this transition to develop their professional network, earn a degree before separating, and conduct research on companies and its leaders. Also learn practical advice like how to identify transferable skills, tailor your resume for each position, and develop a post-military budget so you’re financially prepared when your service ends.

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Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello, everybody. Welcome to our podcast today. My name’s Dr. Jarrod Sadulski with American Military University. Our guest is William Balcerski, and he’s got approximately 30 years of active duty and reserve experience in the United States Coast Guard. He also has a bachelor’s degree from American Military University, and he’s transitioned successfully from the Coast Guard into civilian employment, and he is an example of how to make that transition successfully. Currently, he is a Facilities Protection Supervisor with Lockheed Martin. Mr. Balcerski, welcome.

[Podcast: The Ongoing Threat of Active Shooter Attacks]

William Balcerski: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Can you provide us with an overview of your career in the Coast Guard?

William Balcerski: Sure. I joined the Coast Guard in 1993 in New Jersey. I went to boot camp in Cape May, and spent some time in the Northeast, went to North Carolina for a couple of years, and then came down to Florida in 1997, where I would spend the rest of my career. Did two tours in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Inherent Resolve, and in 2018, I retired as a chief petty officer.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Awesome. Thank you. So in your transition from your military career to your civilian career, what surprised you the most in that transition?

William Balcerski: Honestly, it’s how fast everything ends. When you dedicate your life to service, the support systems are part of who you are, and who you become. When that moment comes and you’re done, whether that’s through retirement or end of enlistment, it’s not a weaned situation, it’s literally flat-out, cold turkey. One day, you have it, the next you don’t. And that was very hard for me.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. So Mr. Balcerski, how can servicemembers use their experience in terms of training in the military to successfully transition into the civilian workforce, to set themselves up for success?

William Balcerski: Well, that’s a great question, and I think it’s one that people struggle with. There’s a huge disconnect between military and civilian worlds. No matter how much training or qualifications you have in the military, if you can’t articulate them in terms in which a company can understand, they’re meaningless. Companies want to know how a person’s experience supports their goals and their visions. You have to focus on your transferable skills, and be able to describe them in a way that the company that you’re trying to get with will understand.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Okay. Absolutely, that makes sense. What are some of the most common transferable skills from the military to civilian employment?

William Balcerski: When we talk about transferable skills, you’re looking at leadership, you’re looking at work comparability, and the fact that you can take projects and lead with them. Your experience that you gain in the military is critical to a lot of these companies, but the main problem is that they don’t know military jargon. They don’t know military policies and procedures. They don’t have an understanding of what it takes to obtain a certain qualification in the military.

It’s critical that you help them see what exactly that you’ve done to not only obtain that qualification, but the leadership qualities, the work ethic, the work that goes into it, the project management, all these things is what they want to see. They could care less about the certification. They want to see what you bring to the table.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point, and I think it would be safe to add to that, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, those are skills that are gained every day in the military and can certainly be applied to the civilian workforce, but it’s important to be able to articulate how problem solving skills and critical thinking skills can be applied towards civilian employment. The Military [Transition] Assistance Program, also known as TAP, are you familiar with that program?

William Balcerski: I very much am.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: What are your thoughts on that program? Is it effective?

William Balcerski: I can honestly tell you that without the Transition Assistance Program, I would not be where I am today. When I attended the program, I took it very seriously. I took notes, I asked hard questions. I applied everything that they taught me to my efforts, and it worked, which I’m very thankful for. So it’s extremely effective for people who take it seriously.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Interesting. What are some of the things that are taught in the TAP program?

William Balcerski: The most things that I got out of it, and when we talk about how we can improve the program, how to write an effective resume, how to write a professional resume, they talk about the difference between a federal resume and a civilian resume. They talk about interview tips and tricks. They do touch on networking, but I think if there’s one thing that they can improve, is more focusing on networking itself. Networking is such a critical, critical part of finding a job these days, and it really hasn’t been focused on.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point, and we’ll definitely touch on that here a little later. So with the TAP program, and you’d mentioned resumes, what are some of the biggest challenges for military members when it comes to writing a civilian resume?

William Balcerski: The challenges that I see, especially through Lockheed Martin, is that military people want to show their excellence. So they’re trying to put a lot of information on the resume, and they don’t really tailor the resume to the job. They carpet-bomb. They make this awesome resume, and then they submit it to 500 companies, and hope to get a response.

That tactic may have worked 10 years ago, but it’s not going to work today. You have to look at the job and tailor your resume to that job, which means you’re going to take off some accomplishments, you’re going to take off some experiences, you’re going to take off even some units that have nothing to do with that job. You have to have total focus on that particular job, and it’s got to be done every single job, so no one job is going to receive the same resume.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s an excellent point, and I think that that definitely gets missed by a lot of servicemembers. I’ve been guilty of it myself. So when it comes to preparing to submit a resume for a particular employer, what can applicants do to learn more about that employer, to be able to apply that to their resume?

William Balcerski: Well, you certainly have to do your homework, there’s no doubt about it. You have to research the company, research the people that are within that company, and you also have to look at the job description itself. A lot of these job descriptions are going to tell you certain things.

I highly recommend anyone who is trying to get a really good job out there to use websites like Jobscan, where it allows you to put the job announcement and your resume in the website, and this is free, and it looks for keywords. It’ll scan both, and then it’ll give you a percentage on how well you match up to that job. And anything 80% or higher typically gets a call, and anything lower than that, you get lost in the realm of all the other resumes that are out there. So intentional focused attack, and focus your resume on that particular job. You’ve got to take it one step at a time. Like I said, carpet-bombing doesn’t work anymore.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s an excellent point. And to go back to your previous comment about networking, which is critically important, and that was something that I, looking back, learned how it could’ve been done better, at least in my career. One of the things that I found was using social media programs, such as LinkedIn, and then finding different groups that have similar traits or background that I do, perhaps, they’re transitioning themselves, or they’ve successfully transitioned in the past, and to build out that network. What are some other ways that people that are about to leave the military can improve in networking?

William Balcerski: Yeah. Networking is absolutely critical. There was a survey done by Apollo Technical, 80% of all professionals find networking essential to their career success. Companies today tend to rely more on knowing the person before they hire them, and there’s only one way to do that, and that’s networking. Professionals know and understand the value of networking, so they’re going to pay it forward.

So you mentioned LinkedIn, which is huge. My recommendation for military members who struggle with networking, and I’m definitely one of them. We tend to be a little bit more introverted because we’re not in the atmosphere, we’re not in the culture that we’re used to being in, so it’s hard to relate to a lot of people out there. That’s definitely a block that military people have to get over, and social skills are key, researching companies, finding out what’s going on.

When you develop your post-military plan—and I’ll talk about that a little bit more here in a minute—one of the things that you’ll have to do is research the company. But find out who the most important people within that company are, and then utilize websites like LinkedIn, and other sites that you can use, blogs, to contact those individuals and establish a rapport, and you have a much significant, improved chance on getting in with that company.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Those are excellent points, and I would have to assume that preparation is key, as it is in everything else in life. What should servicemembers do the last year before separation?

William Balcerski: The first thing is get your degree. According to the VA, there’s 200,000 servicemembers that transition to civilian life each year. Of those 200,000, only 12.5% have bachelor’s degrees, and only 8.9% have masters. The reality is, and this is a bold statement, but your military experience is going to help, but it’s not enough to get you a major job in today’s market.

People don’t look at the military the same way that they used to, and your efforts really need to start out two years. Learning how to write a professional resume, research the area in which you want to go to, understand and learn who the important people are in that industry, and then have an after-career plan. Figure out where you want to live, talk about finances with your significant others, needs of the family, and analyze where are the best places to get that job, in the field that you want to get into.

You want to make sure all that stuff is done before you get out, but the big problem with that is in the military, we’re trained to go to the whistle. We do the job and we do it well, and it’s a very high-paced environment, and because of that, we’re so focused on doing the job, that a lot of people don’t take the time to do that. Then all of a sudden, when that whistle blows, they’re not ready and they’re caught off guard. So I think it’s critical.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Those are excellent points, and it really can make the difference between a successful transition, or one that struggles, and I couldn’t agree more, in education, that’s something that’s been important in my life. I’ve completed for my associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate through military education programs. I utilized many different grants and scholarships, as well as tuition assistance, as well as the Post-9/11 GI Bill to help me get all the way through my education, without having to pay for it out of pocket, which is absolutely huge. And I would still contend that that’s one of the biggest benefits of the military, are the education benefits.

[Podcast: Military Tuition Assistance: Understanding TA and VA Educational Benefits]

And I think it’s critically important for anyone that serves, even if they’re not willing to use the benefits while they’re serving, to make sure that they understand them, and then make sure that they understand what they’re able to take with them after they separate service, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, if they’re qualified. Excellent, excellent points.

My next question is in regard to financial literacy. Financial literacy in the military is often an area that servicemembers struggle with. How important is it for transitioning servicemembers to plan a post-separation budget?

William Balcerski: It really is something that is a main stressor when it comes to transitioning, but it’s one that we can control. With successful planning, it can be one less thing you have to worry about. The main issue is that we take for granted that our paychecks are always going to be there, the first and 15th, right? So most of the members never really learn about financial responsibility, and they tend to live paycheck to paycheck, especially the younger, just entering into the military.

For those individuals, that transition is even harder. Establishing a budget and having a post-military savings is literally absolutely crucial for a successful transition. There’s a lot of military-centric financial institutions that are out there such as a Navy Federal, or USAA. They have advisors that can help you plan. Like I said, it’s cold turkey, and once you’re done, you’re done, and you’re on your own, and it may take weeks or months to find a new career. So it’s essential that you talk to your spouse, talk to your significant other, and have a budget that contains a post-military savings, and that will help make your transition even easier.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point, and I would add to that about the importance of staying out of debt, and I know this from my own experience early in my career, developing that financial literacy, especially early in one’s career, can really make a big difference when it’s time to go ahead and transition out. So, in addition to what we’ve discussed, what are some of the biggest challenges for servicemembers who transition to the civilian workforce?

William Balcerski: Wow, we can probably have a podcast on that by itself, right? I’ve got two points on that. First, you’re dealing with a lot of things all at once. It’s a culture shock. No matter how long you served, you become accustomed to the military lifestyle, and now you’re on the outside looking in. The longer you serve, the harder it is. People who understood you and you had comradery with are gone, and now you’re surrounded by people who may or may not care about your service, and certainly can’t relate to your experiences. And the problem lies in that you can’t relate to them either, which leads to reclusiveness and the feeling of being alone, and a lot of veterans struggle with that.

My second point is, and this is a bit controversial, but there is an unconscious bias towards the military, especially in today’s society. And this is certainly not a political statement, I realize that’s bold to say, but many people today don’t appreciate the military as they once did, and many companies look at the military as people who are used up or broken, and a lot of them don’t consider you for jobs because of that.

I’ll give you a few examples. I know it sounds crazy, but this was actually said to me by my civilian recruiter. Now, I was talking to him about my experiences and he had come to me and said, “Take your overseas experience off your resume.” When I pressed him why, he said that, “Most companies today will see that and automatically think PTSD, which reduces your chances of being selected.”

I was dumbfounded. He says, “Not only does it happen, but it’s almost impossible to prove.” And the other point he made, which was just completely—if that didn’t blow your mind enough—he said that, “A lot of companies today look at military leadership not as real leadership, because the people are forced to listen to you.” And this just shows you the huge disconnect that exists between military and civilian, and it’s mind-blowing at times.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point, and there definitely has been a lot of attention drawn to military leadership, and from my perspective, the toxic leadership that has perhaps existed in the past, the military is actively trying to root that problem out. Would you agree?

William Balcerski: I would.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. There are definitely some challenges for transitioning servicemembers, so it’s important that they arm themselves with everything possible for success. Are there any particular resources, in addition to what we’ve discussed, that you’ve found helpful in transitioning to a civilian workforce?

William Balcerski: Certainly. There is hundreds and hundreds of websites that are out there that can provide really substantial information in preparing for your transition. One of the websites that I strongly recommend is militarytransition.[com]. This is the one-stop shop for people who are preparing for their transition. It’s got everything. It’s got military skills translators, resume help, transition guides. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend that particular website, and it’s got a bunch of links that take you to different links.

The second thing I’d recommend is look to your state resources. Now, here in Florida, they have veteransflorida.org, and it’s a website strictly dedicated to the transition process of going from the military to the civilian world, in the state of Florida, and I know that the majority of states out there have these websites. And, of course, there’s a ton of military transition books out there, including yours, that can provide critical information to people out there.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent information, fantastic information. This is information that every servicemember needs to hear that’s transitioning out of the military to help them succeed, and there are certain resources that you’ve mentioned in the podcast here today that I wasn’t aware of, that I’m excited to go and research and learn more about, and hopefully help to spread the word about.

So to recap, and perhaps in addition to some of the things that we’ve said, what are the three biggest points that you would point out to somebody that’s transitioning from the military into civilian workforce? What are the three most important concepts that they should have on their mind?

William Balcerski: First off, understand that the job market is not the same as it used to be 10 years ago, and it’s constantly changing. If you don’t adapt to those changes, you’re going to be left behind, and understand that your military experience is not enough. Now, for some situations with some corporations, your military experience might be enough, but those companies are like unicorns right now, so keep that in mind.

The number one thing I’d like to let everybody out there know is when you’re transitioning from the military, you’ve just completed one of the most stressful jobs that exist. I had a servicemember contact me not long ago and they were like, “What do I do? My career is ending.” He’s feeling the stress, he’s feeling the pressure. “What do I do?”

And he was financially solvent, he wasn’t in bad shape. And my advice to anybody who is questioning moving forward, what to do? Find your passion and go do that. Don’t enter into the corporate world, if fly fishing is your passion. Go be a fly fisherman, and enjoy your life. You’ve earned it. You deserve the best life possible. It doesn’t have to be, “Okay, well, I’ve achieved all this success, and now I’ve got to achieve more success to prove that that success wasn’t a farce.” And I’ve met people like that, and they’re miserable. Find your passion, and go do it.

The last thing I’ll say is that have realistic expectations. Like I said, the days of getting a $150,000 job right out of the military are over. Be humble. You may have been important and a high performer while you were serving, but you need to be prepared to going back to scrubbing toilets. The one thing I will say though, is I certainly don’t want to be all doom and gloom, but I want military people to be prepared for what they’re going into. It’s not easy, the transition’s not easy, and the more prepared you are, the more success you’re going to have.

There’s one point I’d like to make, and that is, even with all these things working against us, you’re still better than 80% of the workforce that’s out there. You have an advantage, based on your work ethic alone, but you must wield it correctly, and I think that’s the point I’d like to drive home.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. Excellent information, and this is coming from somebody that you’ve successfully transitioned. You are a model for who people should look up to for a successful transition. So Mr. Balcerski, I’d like to thank you again for being our guest today, and I can assure you that this is information that every servicemember that’s transitioning to the civilian workforce needs to hear.

William Balcerski: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Thank you again and stay safe, everyone.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and narcotics trafficking trends and was the guest of INTERPOL in Colombia. Jarrod can be reached through his website at www.Sadulski.com for more information.

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