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Switching skills to prep for civilian life

Apr. 1, 2013 - 03:16PM   |  
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Marine Reserve Sgt. Marqus Jackson doesn’t want to work security all his life, but that’s been his job so far. And as his Reserve obligation began to wind down this spring, his prospects weren’t looking much better.

“As infantry, the only job I would be able to get would be police force, highway patrol, security officer, corrections officer,” he said.

That’s why Jackson is making a switch. He’s applied for the Reserve communications school: six to eight weeks of training that could offer a new world of possibilities.

For troops looking to make a career switch, the reserves offer an intriguing option. Whatever one’s active-duty job, it’s possible to take on a new specialization in the reserves. That means adding a new set of skills to your résumé as you look for civilian work. This puts reservists in a privileged position.

Change doesn’t come easy

Nearly 60 percent of workers would change careers if they could, according to the most recent Job Happiness Poll by PARADE magazine and Yahoo! Finance. But switching careers midstream is challenging. In the eyes of a potential employer, you are what your résumé says you are. Why would they take a chance on hiring you to do something new?

“When an applicant comes from a totally different career area, the private sector sees instability, a lack of direction. No one wants to hire someone who is going to flip-flop between careers,” said Shariq Abdul Ghani, a partner with career consultancy Smashing Resumes in Houston.

The challenge looms especially large for those who wear the uniform. “In the military, you have very niche-oriented specialties, and civilian life just pushes you further into that,” said Ghani, who works in cooperation with Hire Heroes USA and other veterans’ groups.

To enroll in a reserve school in a new specialty, veterans typically will have to meet a number of criteria. They will have to nail the appropriate test score, meet any special requirements such as a minimum eyesight level, and must typically find a unit with an open slot in the new rating.

“You also have to sell yourself. You have to show them you are a good candidate for that particular job,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Flipse, a public affairs officer for that service’s reserve recruiting command at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.

In public affairs, for example, “you’ll be dealing with the media, national media sometimes, so you have to be able to speak well. You have to ‘present’ a certain way,” Flipse said.

There’s typically no upper limit to who can change ratings in the reserves. “Even if you are an E-7 coming off of active duty, they will still send you back to school,” Flipse said. You may lose a stripe, since you’re entering the new job at a lower skill level, and promotions may come slower. But you’ll still retire at your higher rank and higher pay, and you’ll draw active-duty pay while in school.

The reserve training gives veterans a significant edge in the civilian workforce. Without it, even if you can pull off a switch, “you’ll still start at the bottom of the ladder,” Flipse said. With military-grade training to show, it’s likely a veteran will get hired in at a high pay rate.

Open doors

The opportunity to switch direction can be especially significant to younger veterans whose paths while in uniform may not have been well-considered.

“We all come into the Marine Corps at pretty young ages without a real clue as to what we want to do with our lives or with our future. People come in wanting to protect our nation’s rights and freedoms, and now that they are getting out, that’s the only skill set they have,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Ortiz, a prior-service recruiter in New Orleans.

Those looking to change their area of expertise can take some steps in advance of separation to lay the groundwork.

• “If they know for a fact that this is something they want to do — say they plan to go into the intel world — they should research the basic requirements on that job skill and start working toward those,” Ortiz said.

• Test scores matter, so start boning up for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, especially in those areas that might be relevant to a new military occupational specialty, Air Force Specialty Code or rating.

• Find a unit that has availability in your new area of expertise. If it’s a place you are willing to live, make contact with leadership and apprise them of your plans.

The drawdown has slowed all of these opportunities to some degree, but services report that depending on rating, location and overall need, possibilities are still wide open.

While some opportunities “are limited at this time due to the [Selected Reserve] being overmanned overall, availabilities exist across several technical ratings,” said Navy Capt. Bruce Deshotel, head enlisted community manager.

Jackson is looking forward to his new communications training to serve as a launching pad that will rocket him away from corrections and security into bigger things.

“Anything from a sound technician to broadcast on a radio station, to any type of TV station: There are just a lot of possibilities out there,” he said.

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