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Making the move: How a Marine made the military to civilian transition in public affairs

Making the move: How a Marine made the military to civilan transition in public affairs

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So, it happens to all of us who serve in the armed forces: we eventually leave the service (surprise!) to make the military to civilian transition. Of course, some have an easier time transitioning out of uniform and finding meaningful employment or (even better) achieving personal and professional goals within an industry of our choosing. While there seems to be an uncountable number of “how to successfully transition out of the military”-type literature available, there have been few (until recently) published works on how to successfully transition from military public affairs to a career in the public relations industry.

When I retired from the Marine Corps in November after 20 years as a combat correspondent and public affairs specialist, I found myself unemployed. Why? Certainly not from a lack of effort towards optimizing my brand via the “critical three” vehicles to sell myself: tailored resumes, successful interviews and effective networking. Instead, my free membership to the “I can’t find a job post-service” club stemmed from a notion that I could step out of military public affairs and into a private industry communications or public relations position with little effort.

I was wrong.

Despite veterans’ best efforts, many (including me) simply fail to fully prepare for the transition. In fact, nearly two-thirds of veterans have admitted to facing difficulties in transitioning to life post-military service. Arguably the No. 1 roadblock continues to be an inability to effectively translate – and ultimately capture and articulate – individual skills and experiences.

Likewise, some service members have difficulty making the transition from generalist to… well, whatever it is he or she wants to do. That’s the problem: once the uniform comes off, we’re no longer wearing as many professional “hats.” An employer seeking to hire a new media relations account manager may not have an interest in the fact that in addition to your media relations experiences and successes, you also successfully ran your unit’s training program, managed a budget, or provided base tours to packs of Boy Scouts. Chances are, they’re simply interested in your relevant experiences, education and accomplishments, and how that translates to possible success for an organization.

While this is certainly not news for those who have made the transition, it most certainly includes those seeking to successfully transition into the public relations industry. To that end, here are my Top 5 recommendations for a successful military to civilian transition for a career in public relations or a communications-related field:

1. Pick an industry

Nothing screams “I don’t know what I want to do, so you probably shouldn’t hire me” louder than a resume chock full of accomplishments from a shotgun-blast of unrelated industries and/or duty descriptions. Instead, figure out what you want to do, why, and be able to articulate your successes in that field. Want to be a media relations manager for the auto industry? How about a crisis communicator or stakeholder relations specialist for a nonprofit? Looking for a public affairs position with the federal government? Employers need security in knowing that you know what you want to do; employers hire specific talent, not job seekers.

2. Use the right lingo in your resume.

The fact is your resume is your brand. Period. If an employer does not understand what your resume means, you’re not going to get the job. That simple. No matter how wonderful you feel your resume is, it must be translatable to match an employer’s needs. To get started, search online for “successful public relations resumes” for tips. Also, the Public Relations Society of America’s Moving Veterans Forward program offers several great sample resumes for military public affairs officers.

3. Find a mentor.

Don’t do this on your own. Reach out to those who have successfully made the transition and ask them directly to help you do the same. I joined American Corporate Partners, a nonprofit foundation that matches transitioning veterans with corporate business partners to provide career advice, set and achieve goals, and successfully transition to specific industries.

4. Grow your network.

Sure, career fairs and community civic clubs are great ways to meet people and establish a presence, but will these efforts necessarily put you in front of those hiring PR professionals? Not likely. Instead, focus your networking efforts in two places: online via social media (like LinkedIn, which offers 60 months of “jobseeker” status to veterans, free of charge) and with industry-specific organizations, like PRSA. These efforts will help you develop a presence on and offline.

5. Be willing to relocate.

The hard reality is that in order to get the job, you have to be willing to go to the job. For me, federal employment as a public affairs specialist meant moving back to the Washington, D.C., area. If locale is the driving factor in your PR employment quest, then take time to research – and decide – on a few regions in the U.S. you would like. Unsure what the most “PR friendly” cities are? Check out PR Daily’s top 10 list.

Of course, all of this takes time. I recommend service members begin planning their post-service futures at least two years in advance. Education, networking, resume-building, and the application/hiring process itself can take months, even years. Allow yourself time to figure out exactly what you want to do post-service, and determine a course of action to get you there.

Making the move: How a Marine made the military to civilan transition in public affairs

Jim Goodwin is the editor of the Pentagram newspaper, a weekly military publication that serves some 40,000 readers in the D.C. metro area. He retired from the Marine Corps last year after 20 years of honorable service, which included a career in public affairs, journalism and community relations. An award-winning correspondent and photojournalist, Goodwin earned his Bachelor’s in Journalism before retiring from the service. He is currently working towards his Master of Arts in Communication and Leadership through Gonzaga University. civilian

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9 Comments to "Making the move: How a Marine made the military to civilian transition in public affairs"

  1. Great information here Jim. As a active-duty public affairs Marine this was great, specific information to our field.

  2. Jim…good advice. One of my frustrations as a publisher was that I knew outstanding writers and photojournalists that I would like to hire who were transitioning–but they had no portfolios or resumes. Larger companies seldom hire folks on word of mouth recommendations. That can get you in the door. However, the HR department has a process you must go through that screens qualified candidates by committees and selection processes. Like you say–craft targeted resumes…and don’t show everything you’ve done since grade school in your portfolio. You need to gather information on your prospective employer, then put together a sales package that meets that employer’s criteria.

  3. Brandon Roach says:

    Jim,
    Hey great information. I too found myself with this same issue. I bounced from unemployed to random job for 4 years. I have lived life as a war-fighter and a media man and coming back to the “real world” was one of the hardest things for me. Luckily I did have the opportunity to work with you and Chad during my time in and I learned a lot from both of you. Thank you for all the training then and your commitment to training prior service PAO’s now. I will pass this on to all the guys I know.

  4. Jason Johnston says:

    Good article and great resource for PA Marines. I’d also recommend taking a course or doing some self-study on Marketing and Marketing-Communications, two very different fields from PA (and much different from your local MCCS office), and you need to know the difference. Also, network, network, network….no…really…network!!

  5. Jim Goodwin says:

    Gents, thanks for the posts! I know I’m merely echoing what I wrote on LinkedIn, but having a mentor(s) to help me figure out what I wanted to actually do post-service, then translate that into civilian terms that HR folks can understand was instrumental in my success in landing a job, even a federal government one. The portfolio is critical – especially when applying for positions that require proof of past work. Like Bob mentioned, the portfolio can’t be a smorgasbord of past projects. Instead, it should be tailored (like the resume) to the position, and of course, feature only the best work.

  6. Bob Faletti says:

    Jim, Great article and helpful hints. I am a retired PAO who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. About 10 years before retirement I had read a factoid in the USAA magazine that the average military officer held 3 different jobs in the first 5 years of retirement. Commanders and deputies in Corps Districts are usually near the end of their careers so I would include in my briefing to newcomers that they should take advantage of this assignment to learn how to work WITH civilian employees rather than just order civilians like they would have their military subordinates in previous assignments. Some listened, some didn’t. Good luck as a civilian. Keep smiling. (It helps to calm idiots and confuses enemies.)

  7. Brian McElaney says:

    Excellent post Jim, wish I had this when I got out.

    Former USMC PAO here, who now does a lot of hiring.

    That networking item is huge… those of you in active duty should be on LinkedIn now and continually connecting to anyone you deal with professionally. Do a Toys for Tots program drop off point? Linkin connect the store manager or CEO. You’re increasing the number of people who know you need help when you end up needing it…

    Also get on Twitter now. Google the top people in your field and follow them and anyone who does what you do in the corporate world… then interact with them. Answer their questions, comment on their posts. For your own content post more than just articles and retweets… tweet about your life and your experiences as well. Look like a human…

    Finally – get out in to the community. Find meet ups for what you do (meetup.com) and go… if non exist in your area start a group in the closest city to your base (that well groomed Twitter and LinkedIn account will help). Also use some of your leave to go to civilian conferences and hang out with people.

    It’s work but it builds cred. Add that to everything else Jim says and you’ll definitely have a leg up.

  8. Good information that should be shared with all military personnel getting prepared to retire. I went through many of the same experiences, having to work in the private sector for almost 10 years (mostly in retail and HR) before finally getting hired to work for the Army in Korea. Been back a little over eight years and have been at Camp Humphreys for the last four. Sometimes I get irritated with folks who find a government job right away, but I figure they were just luckier/better prepared to retire than I was. Also, I wouldn’t trade the experiences I went through before landing my current position. It makes me appreciate it a lot more.

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