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Service Members, Get Hired! Part III: Prioritize

Military to Civilian Transition

In Part II we ended our conversation around focusing your search with the idea of choosing an industry and then narrowing down your options from hundreds to dozens. Today we’re going to talk about how prioritizing the five elements of your job search can help you narrow it down even further. By now, you should've done your soul searching, discovered and focused on exactly what you want to do, and you're ready to narrow down those dozens and dozens of job opportunities popping up each week to a small handful that you truly want to go after. But how do you do that? With prioritization.

There’s a quip from a peer mentor of mine, Zackary Nelson of First Command, that I have stolen from him. And there are other versions of this concept, including the aforementioned book in Part II by Richard Bolles, “What Color is Your Parachute?” However, Zack’s presentation of the concept is concise yet impactful. It goes like this:

  • There are five things to love about a job: The location, the pay, the people, the work, and the hours. Now pick three.

Remember in Part II when I said there’s probably no such thing as the perfect job? This is the solution for that. Decide which three things are most important to you, list them in order, and use them to narrow down your search. Now let’s take a look at each one individually, visiting some of the considerations as well as pros and cons.


This first element is a bit of a 50/50. Either you have a location in mind, or you don’t. If you’re like me, you only had one choice, which was no choice. My wife has a phenomenal job where we are, and after years of her and the kids following me around in my military career, relocation just wasn’t an option. This can be very limiting of the job search because folks are often expected to go where the work is in today's day and age. Of course, telework and remote jobs are much more prevalent nowadays, but post-pandemic, many companies are looking for their employees to return to brick-and-mortar locations. The converse of this is that, if you’re willing to go where the work is, you’ve gone from a small handful of opportunities in your area to an overwhelming amount of openings nationwide.

Something else to look into, depending on the industry you're looking to get into, is to check for regional nuances. An IT job in DC may have one set of required certifications, whereas the same exact type of IT job could have differing required certifications in Texas. So it may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, you have to narrow it down to a few locations. Otherwise, you’ll be right back to that focus issue we discussed last week. How you prioritize the location can severely limit or overwhelm your list of opportunities.


I should probably have led off with this one, but I purposefully didn’t. However, this is almost every Veteran’s #1 priority. And for many of us, once we land jobs, we realize that it wasn’t nearly as important as we thought. However, I don’t want to discourage you from making it a priority, because there’s absolute merit in doing so. So I will share this: Figure out your minimum and maximum pay.

This is critical. You can’t effectively narrow down your job search if you don’t know what you need to make, versus what you think you need to make. So how do you do that? Well, for the “What you think you need to make,” there are calculators for that. At the time of writing of this article, has a decent one that will take all of your military benefits and calculate how much you need to make in the civilian world to “break even.”

Now, let me give you a word of caution. As I, and many other Veterans before you have discovered, the amount you need to make is almost never as bad as you think; and that calculator is great at scaring you! When I used the calculator, it told me that I had to make over $100K a year just to break even, and trust me, at that point, I was having no luck with jobs that high in salary, because as we discussed in Part I: a) I likely wasn’t going to break into an industry at $100K a year, and b) I was very likely going to have to take a “pay cut.” But I had a family to support and at the time three bottomless stomachs were being carried around by my teenage boys. So I had to figure out what I needed to make.

To do that I used what’s called a “Zero-balance budget.” Now in all actuality, I already had been using a zero balance budget for years in our family’s month-to-month budgeting and spending (I'm a geek that way). But I was able to take our zero-balance template and run some hypotheticals. Going through about the last 12 months’ worth of finances via bank records and whatnot, I was able to figure out exactly how much we spent on bills, utilities, mortgage, etc. I also figured out how much we spent on things like groceries, gas for the cars, etc.

Once I had all those calculations, that became our need. It covered everything we needed just to survive month-to-month, with no frills, no eating out, no vacation, etc. That became my starting point, and in my case, it came out to be about $40K – literally less than half of the “break-even” calculation. For reference and perspective, I was retiring as an E7 with 22 years of service, no VA disability awarded at the time, and three teenage boys ravaging my fridge and cupboard multiple times a day.

Then I re-ran my mock budget with some frills and stuff thrown in there: Money to dine out, the occasional movie, and the fun stuff. Low and behold, I was going to have to make the a little less than the between the first two numbers: $60K. Anyhow, with that said, I now had my three benchmarks; the need ($40K), the “think I need” ($100K), and the realistic in-between ($60K). I tell you what, having those three numbers completely changed my job search. It helped me focus my job search, and it even took some of the stress off of searching for the “think I need!”


The next topic to consider in your prioritization is hours. If there’s one area that is severely overlooked, and yet so incredibly valuable in its “bang for the buck” factor, this is it. A lot of Veterans who have been on the “other side” for a while will attest to this with me, your scheduled working hours can be way more important than pay! My time as a GS civilian with the US Coast Guard was a beautiful example of that. In my role, I was able to work a schedule where I added an extra hour to each day of the pay period, but in doing so, I got a three-day weekend every two weeks, and I absolutely love it! My previous job at Wells Fargo was extremely rigid in the hours I had to work, which being customer-facing is just a nature of the beast and in no way should reflect poorly on Wells Fargo, but I found that I was absolutely despising the regimented set-hours each and every day, sometimes 6 days a week.

You see, what a lot of us don’t realize is yes, we are often working crazy hours for Uncle Sam, but there was also considerable flexibility that we could often leverage. Things like medical appointments, or any appointments for that matter, are often something we could reasonably attend without a ton of planning in the military. In a regimented 9-5 job with no flexibility? You’ll probably either need to burn your leave or lose out on pay. Oh…and that 30 days of leave you get in the military? You likely won’t find that anywhere. Wells Fargo starts you off at 3 weeks a year, and that’s considerably more than most employers! And 4-day weekends every month? Yeah, those are gone too.

So what am I getting at? Do not overlook this area of consideration! Having the ability to “flex” your schedule (work more hours one day to cut back another, or take an entire day off every week or two) can work wonders in your life when it comes to making appointments, taking care of family, or as I found, even just mowing the lawn or scheduling a haircut!


This is another commonly overlooked aspect of the job search. Yet, all throughout my military career, you would hear the phrase, “A command team will make or break any assignment.” Of course, that’s a little oversimplified, but it speaks to the importance and impact that others have on the enjoyment of your job. However, you often can’t gauge how well you’ll “fit in” with a company until you interview, and often struggle to gauge how well you’ll fit in with your coworkers until you actually start working.

So how does one prioritize this area? First off, research a company. There are numerous websites out there like Indeed and Glassdoor that provide insight into the quality of work environments in companies. Just remember, most people only post if they have something negative to say because most happy employees are still happily employed with the company.

Another tactic is to google the company and see what sort of things are out there “on them internets.” Hey, I can almost guarantee you that the hiring manager is going to google you before you interview, so do your own research on them and the company first! Another good opportunity to gauge this is in prepping for an interview, however, I'll save my tips on gauging that for Part IV when I cover interviewing.

Arguably, the best tactic to leverage is the extremely powerful tool that is LinkedIn. Most companies nowadays have a LinkedIn profile, and many of their employees have profiles as well. If they've listed that company as their employer, the two profiles are linked. Search for the company's LinkedIn page, click the employees link, and find an employee that is in the exact or similar role that you want to be in. Then reach out to them for a chat. You've probably heard of these as "Informational Interviews." They're not hard, and the info you get will be pure gold regarding insight into company culture, and sometimes even pay and benefits. Oh yeah...and now you've just extended your network with someone on the inside of that company! But we'll get more into that in Part VI of this series.


Our last element of consideration and topic in today’s article is the actual work to be done. I’m not going to dwell on this one a whole lot because this ties into a horse we already beat to death earlier: Passion. You’ve found what you’re passionate about, found an industry or field that ties into that passion, and now you just need to decide how important it is in comparison to the other four. Just remember, as corny as it sounds, if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Corny or not, it's scientifically proven that when you're doing what you enjoy, you actually expend less energy to produce greater results. So to toss out another corny adage: Work smarter, not harder.

Now Pick Three

Do all five of these elements sound like their important? You best believe they are!!! However, if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority. Plus, finding all five in a job for your first job out of the uniform is a bit of a mythical unicorn. So, prioritize all five, pull out the top three, and let that guide your job search. Statistically, if you find your three, you're going to thoroughly enjoy the job. If you can find four of your five, you’ve struck gold, and statistically, you're going to love the job. I have four of my five where I'm currently at and I love what I do.

Hopefully, you’ve found some use in Part III of our Employment chat. If you did, please feel free to share it with your fellow service members so that they can also hopefully glean some insight into the various aspects of transition. And of course, join me next week as we start Part IV of the Employment chat, where we'll be talking resumes and job applications. It’s sure to be a doozy!

Until next time, be safe, stay healthy, and remember that you’re not in this alone!

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