Back to class, part 2: the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar

“The phonebook’s here!  The phonebook’s here!”

Well, this isn’t the phonebook and I am not Navin R. Johnson, but this is the much anticipated and often promised posting on my second foray into education on transition.  This is the second of three posts about the transition classes and seminars which was fortunate to attend.  The subject today is the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar, which is a week long symposium that focuses primarily on training us, the soon to depart active duty set, on the finer points of changing careers. Specifically, this course is intended to provide jobseeking training on a more senior level than the previous TAP/TAMP classes.  Consistent with the title of the course, the student body was comprised with career Marines and Sailors who had served over a quarter of a century in uniform- a truly distinguished (at least we liked to think so!) group of about forty men and women.

Unlike the TAP/TAMP curricula, this seminar did not meet the requirements mandated by the Department of Defense for a transition class.  As such it is truly voluntary but proved to be well worth the time spent!  TAP/TAMP was a broad array of briefs and classes that centered on the mechanics of transition and is intended to educate the nation’s newest veterans on the rights and entitlements that they had earned through their service.  Since all of those subjects were thoroughly covered in the TAP/TAMP classes, the 25+ Pre-Retirement Seminar could focus on what each and every one of us was most worried about: how to get a job.

The course spans an entire week, with an introduction on the first day by a retired Marine named Dan from the Marine Corps Community Services Personal and Professional Development center located aboard Camp Pendleton.  We were shoehorned into a smallish classroom in a building that was new sometime around the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the air conditioning worked so we didn’t really have anything to complain about.  After Dan went over the schedule and the administrative details (like where the heads, I mean bathrooms, were located and more importantly where we could find some coffee), he introduced Chuck.  Chuck would be our teacher, mentor, and confessor for the succeeding days of the course, but the first day belonged to Dan.

Dan’s portion of the class covered some of the same topics from TAP/TAMP, but from a more senior perspective.  For example, one of the guest speakers was a businessman from the local area who discussed entrepreneurship and the exciting possibilities of owning your own business.  “When you own your own business,” he observed, “you are realizing your own dreams.  When you work for somebody else, you are helping them realize theirs!”  True enough!  The concept of being an entrepreneur was more in line with our “older” class, because most young guys and gals getting out after a few years aren’t going to be in the position to go into business for themselves, but the education level and practical experience garnered over a few decades in uniform lend themselves to entrepreneurship.  Hmmm…..food for thought.

One of the most interesting and useful parts of the first day centered around a couple of sheets of paper held together with a standard government issued staple in the corner.  Starkly white with black text (in true government fashion- no fancy graphics or glossy paper for us!), its’ title grabbed my attention right away:

How Prepared Are You to Become a Civilian Again?

Great question!  I read on.

“How prepared do you think you are for the rest of your life?  There are many things to consider as you prepare to leave military service.  Think over each of the questions below and circle the answer that is most applicable to you.  The more “Yes” answers you have, the better prepared you will be.

Hmmmmmmmm.  How ready was I?

“1.  Do you discuss you upcoming retirement freely with your spouse, children, friends?”

Yep.  So far so good!

“2.  Do you know what community, state, and federal resources are available to help you make the transition from military to civilian life?”

Feeling a bit perplexed, I wasn’t so sure that a solid “yes” was the best and honest answer.  I circled “yes” anyway because I wanted to make sure my score at the end of the questionnaire was a good one.

“3.  Do you have a support system – friends, family – away from your work place?”

Whew!  Another easy “yes”!

“4.  Have you thought about meaningful off-duty roles that will prepare you now for civilian career opportunities?”

“5.  Do you have a lawyer with whom you are comfortable?”

“6.  Is your will up to date?”

“7.  Do you have a psychologist, religious adviser, or other professional to whom you can turn for sound personal advice?”

Gulp.  The questions were getting harder, or at least less easy to convince myself that I could continue to happily circle “yes”.  I didn’t realize that having a shrink or a priest was part of transition.  Needless to say, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought, but the exercise of completing the questionnaire did admirably serve to focus my attention.

Not long after being humbled by a simple 25 question questionnaire another lecturer took the stage.  He was a youngish looking guy with a nice suit, and the initial impression was that he was another businessman here to tell us what we needed to do with our lives.  His introduction, though, changed that misguided perception!

It turns out that he was recently one of us, and had made the transition to the other side a couple of years ago.  He was also a graduate of this exact seminar, and was standing before us to spread the gospel of hope and positivity- he was the “after” that we all wanted to become.  Dapper, smart, and articulate, he told us his story, which in a nutshell was that 1) transition is confusing and daunting at times and 2) once you transition, life can be pretty good.  It is the tweener time bookended by getting out on one end and getting a job on the other.  Not to worry though, he said, because we were in this course.  He credited his success to the lessons that he learned in the same seats that we were keeping warm- all we needed to do was pay attention and do everything that Dan and Chuck said.

Not long after his pitch we finished for the day.  Happily, the remainder of the week would be held at the old Officer’s Club, which was much more spacious and comfortable than the Hobbitlike warren we occupied on the first day.  An added piece of happiness was provided as well- we each got our very own copy of the book “What Color is Your Parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles.  A good class and free stuff to boot!  Not bad!

Promptly at 0800 the next morning we all piled into the O’Club and got ready for Chuck to show us the way to our collective futures.  Before I go into the fine course he gave us, let me give you a little of his background.

Chuck enlisted in the Marine Corps back in the 1950’s.  He did four years on active duty and then got out.  One thing that has always followed him is that his transition from the Marine Corps was not as genteel as it should have been.  More of a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” than “thanks for your service”.  It always bothered him.

Chuck had a very successful career despite the failure of the service to prepare him for life on the other side.  He was a salesman and later an executive in the medical devices industry, and after retiring from that line of work he opened his own practice as a career consultant.  He has helped literally thousands of people prepare for interviews and snag successful jobs- including Marines and other servicemen and women.  At a Marine Executive Association meeting (MEA is a great networking association- more on that in another post), Chuck was asked if he could put together a transition seminar for more senior folks (like me!), and after putting a significant amount of diligent work in, he created this seminar.

Fast forward again a couple of years and there I was, sitting on the edge of my seat learning lesson after lesson on what transition was like.  Each and every transition seminar is fantastic, and they are variations on the theme of transition and job hunting.  Chuck’s seminar focused on the hiring process, and most telling was his perspective as a businessman.  He started by handing out a workbook of sorts which contained the entire slide package for his classes along with space to take notes.  This proved to be very useful over the next few days, and my only regret is that I didn’t take more notes!  He used anecdotes from his experience as an employee and employer as well as a wealth of statistical data and research to teach us the ins and outs of how to conduct a successful job search.

There are four specific topics from Chuck’s seminar that were more in depth than the other seminars, and I learned a ton by participating.  Here they are in no particular order:

1.  The importance of professionalism.  Chuck has interviewed literally hundreds, if not thousands, of job candidates.  One of the things he does in his practice is to act as a professional interviewer for companies on the other coast.  He performs initial interviews for professional “C” level (CEO, COO, etc.) candidates- interviews that, if successful, will get them in the door with major companies at senior levels.  Chuck shared with us what it is like to interview senior people.  Some of the vignettes were hilarious, some were a little uncomfortable, but all were lessons in how to put your best foot forward when interviewing.  It isn’t just your resume and a new suit that makes an impression, but little things like cleanliness of your fingernails (engine grease under the nails is only acceptable when applying for a job as a mechanic), the condition of your shoes (ever heard of polish and a brush?) and your breath (is roasted garlic for lunch a good idea before an interview?) His perspectives really showed that it takes a lot of hard work and diligent effort to make an interview go well.  Likewise, it only takes a little laziness a little inattentiveness to make it go poorly.  Long story short- put the work in ahead of time and you will do fewer interviews and land a job.  Don’t do so an you will become a professional interviewee!

2.  Clothes.  The indefatigable Mark Twain observed that clothes make the man, and today I am sure that he would include women in that statement.  In this case it is absolutely true.  Too many of us have terrible wardrobes from decades ago or have a skewed perspective of what businesspeople really dress like (what?  I can’t wear my khaki tie with blue shirt?)  The first impression is critically important in a job interview, and if you look like an idiot things probably won’t go well when you try to dazzle the interviewer with your brilliance.  All they will see is a fashion disaster that they don’t want representing their company.

Chuck doesn’t just wax eloquent with anecdotes in the realm of haberdashery- he brings in the experts.  At the request of the seminar coordinator, the general manager from a nation-wide and well respected clothier gives a lengthy presentation on attire. Far from a sales pitch (and Chuck doesn’t get a kickback!), it is an in-depth education ranging from how suits are made (pretty interesting, really!) to the importance and differences between fashion and style (fashion being the trendy thing that is in this year, and style being timeless…for example, four button suitcoats were fashionable a few years ago, but the two button coat never goes out of style).  They went into great detail on the quality levels in clothing as well as how to dress, which surprisingly has a lot more to it than just slacks + shirt + tie + jacket.  Colors matter (I knew that) and textures do too (texture?  huh?)  Belts should match your shoes.  No bling- that nifty but obnoxious aircraft carrier tie tac is probably not a good idea…and best of all, they had a sale going on that weekend on clothing.  I went shopping and after a personal consultation I like to think that I am, indeed, a sharp dressed man!

3.  Resumes, cover letters, and other job related documentation.  Each seminar has a different take on resumes, and this one is no different.  Chuck preaches the merits of all of the various resume formats, but focuses on the chronological resume over the functional or combination formats.  In his words:

“I have a worksheet for the chronological resume that makes it easier to start. We have to start somewhere and filling in the blanks is easier than saying ‘let’s write a resume what kind of a resume do you want?’ Initially I took this approach [while teaching the seminar] and I had 40+ Marines and Sailors looking at each other. They honestly didn’t know where to start. We are all good at filling in the blanks and each person in the class knows the chronology of their own career. So if you fill in the blanks with your entire career we have a starting point. The chronological is easy for the class because they all have more than two decades of material to work with. When they finally decide on what they would like to do, then we can start discarding irrelevant information. But we had a lot of information to start with; at this point we can make the determination of what type of resume do I want to produce. Resumes are a very personal thing; the resume that you submit to an employer is the one that you decide is the best portrayal of you on paper. It is YOU in the absence of the real and physical you.”

Chuck’s point is a very valid one- the audience (including myself and 30 of my newest and closest herd-mates) have little to no experience with resume writing, and the chronological resume is a logical place to start.  I will devote no shortage of electrons to screen on resumes in the future, but in a nutshell the chronological resume is just that- a lineage of your career that starts with today and stretches back into the past.  How far depends on how much grey hair you have; if you are fresh out of college, then how you did in high school is relevant. Not so much for the “experienced” crowd.  In our case, the last ten years is the most important.  The functional resume is based on your skill sets and is not tied to a timeline.  This is good for situations where qualifications and certifications are important, such as the healthcare field (for example, a specialist in podiatry would probably address their ability to get around a foot pretty well).  The combination is just that, a combination between both of the other formats with the occasional other bit thrown in.  Cover letters are likewise important, because after all, you want to get a job, don’t you?  A mimeographed copy of the same resume sent to a multitude of firms won’t get you very far, and especially if there is not a cover letter to go with it.  The cover letter is a more specific introduction of you to the company you are submitting the resume to.  If you don’t have one, or if it is obviously a generic one, then you are guaranteed to feed the recyclable paper shredder without a second thought.  Other items are business cards, thank you cards, references…..all in all an extensive list of things about which I knew very little but that Chuck educated me on!  Again, I will be writing at great length about all of these in the future.  I promise!

4.  Negotiating salary and benefits.  Now this is important because it is something that all of us uniform are really terrible at.  We come from a background where our salary and benefits are the same for all of us:  you can look it up on the internet.  If you want to see how much I make a year, Google “2011 Military Pay Chart” and look up Lieutenant Colonel (paygrade O-5) with over 26 years of service.  Not so much in the civilian world!  You can get fired for telling everyone how much you make!  Biiiiiiig difference between the civilian world and the military, let me tell you.  Getting back to negotiating, Chuck breaks it down in easily understandable chunks that we can use to negotiate our salary and benefit with a potential employer.  Little things like 37% of people who ask for something get it, while 100% of those who don’t ask for anything get nothing.  Another gem is doing your homework- how much is the position worth?  More specifically, how much is the position worth where you want to live?  A salary in the midwest  is simply not the same as one in New York or San Francisco- you really need look into the background in order to determine what is right for the job, for you, and for your family.  He also goes into great detail about benefits, perks, and the like.  Company car?  Parking?  Mileage?  All of those things that I had not thought of were laid out in a logical and thoughtful manner.  There are literally dozens of resources just a few keystrokes away- try an internet search for the average salary and benefits for the type of job you are looking for.  Search several sites and average them together, and that will give you a benchmark from which to negotiate.  After all, the person with whom you are negotiating does this for a living, so you had better be diligent!

I learned a tremendous amount about transitioning from Dan and Chuck, and I am truly in their debt.  If you are on the West Coast, then start breaking down doors to get into the course.  If not, hopefully their seminar will be established at a base near you….

__________

Lessons learned:

– Find out if a senior level retirement seminar is available in your area.  The successful implementation of Dan and Chuck’s hard work here at Camp Pendleton has resulted in bases far and wide trying to copy the program.  Also, sign up early as there are only so many seats per class.

– First and foremost, calm down and get yourself organized as you begin your search for a job. It’s easy for me to say calm down, but when you are faced with the prospects of finding a job in today’s market, it’s a daunting task.  Organization will make it a little easier.

– Do your planning in a logical order. Don’t try to do everything at once. You want to make a time-flow chart with all of your tasks laid out. Each entry should have a start and finish date. You can follow the workbook and lay out your projects in logical order. Some of these tasks should be: Resume, Cover Letter (Each one should be personalized but you should have a plan) Reference Page, Networking plan in writing, Practice interviewing skills, Research employment possibilities, put together your interviewing wardrobe, develop ideas for thank you notes, and spend only 15% to 20% of your time contacting employment agencies and headhunters because that is the percentage of jobs that they tend to provide.

– Be comfortable in talking about yourself at an interview. Your interviewer really wants to know two things about you (1) What are your qualifications for the job and (2) based on your qualifications what are your accomplishments.

– Follow-up on all leads!  Networking is where most jobs come from, and one of the follow-ups that you do may be the job that you are actually seeking.

– Job search is the worst job in the world. The sooner you get going on all aspects the sooner you will get a job and a paycheck!

I would like to extend a hearty thank-you to Chuck, as he helped with this post!

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