After my four years of active duty in the U.S. Army ended in 2001, I struggled with what to do next. Talking to other veterans, this seemed to be a common dilemma facing exiting service members.  In the hopes that it might be helpful to other military vets and mid-career professionals navigating similar career decisions, I thought I would lay out some best practices that worked for me in my career transitions (both out of the military and from one industry to another).

Surveying the job market after leaving the army, I found that my skills and abilities fit well within the national security realm, so I became a Department of Defense civilian and transitioned later to a defense contractor role. For eight years, I worked on a variety of national security challenges. However, over time, I found that the 24/7 demands of the work were not compatible with the lifestyle I wanted with my growing family. Simultaneously, I found myself increasingly more interested in the business aspects of my contracting job. I soon realized that I wanted to be in a career focused less on North Korean missile launches and more on revenue growth and other traditional business issues.

I knew I needed a roadmap to get where I wanted to go. Here’s how I successfully landed my job as a Fixed Income Product Manager with Charles Schwab.

Research the Desired Career

Recognizing my growing interest in business, I knew I needed to narrow down that broad field to specific industries. Given my interest in problem-solving and client relations, management consulting and financial services emerged as two focus areas.

I then made an effort to talk to people in those industries as a way of further researching those fields. Who were the prominent employers? What skills were needed? Where could I go to find out more? What did a typical day-in-the-life look like? I found networking to be an invaluable tool to learn more about my target industries. I requested informational interviews, reached out to people on LinkedIn, and attended hiring events.

While speaking to people in my target industries, I asked questions aimed at helping me learn more about long-term trends and geographic factors. With regard to trends, what was the outlook for the industry? Was it going to be worth it with regard to the investment in time and resources to enter that industry? Geographically, was I willing to move to locations where the major employers were clustered?

Conduct a Skills Inventory

After gaining a better understanding of my target industries, I considered what I had to offer with regard to my skills and abilities. Of the required skills for those industries, how many could I truthfully say I held? What became glaringly obvious during my transition was that my past education in English and International Affairs was not going to cut it. In the end, my skills inventory suggested I was in need of formal business education. It’s important to be realistic about how much time and effort you’re willing to put in to bridge the skills gaps. I had to ask myself honest questions, such as, “Can the gaps be bridged by independent learning or do I need a certificate or graduate education? In the end, I decided to take the leap into an executive MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis. Given the 20-month time commitment and six-figure tuition (thank goodness for some GI Bill help), it was not an easy decision to make. But, in my mind, it was the most effective way for me to gain the skills for the industry I wanted to enter.

Create and Implement a Plan

Once I gained an accurate picture of my target industry and the skills I needed to be successful in that industry, I had to lay out a plan of action. In evaluating my plan, I used the resume test as a frame of reference. What milestones can I achieve that would enable my resume to be more attractive to hiring managers in my target industries? I knew my plan didn’t necessarily have to be a complicated one covering every move, but I recognized the importance of identifying major milestones to navigate toward. As you consider your own transition, maybe you have a plan to obtain a certain certification in the next six months. Or perhaps you want to commit to an online learning course on a particular topic. The bottom line is that it’s incredibly important to set up a structure that pushes you forward, even if incrementally. That’s what kept me on track.

Lessons Learned

Over the course of my transition from one industry to another, I encountered setbacks and frustration. There were times where I felt that the enormous investment I was making in time and resources for an MBA would not pay off. I felt that I had already spent too much of my career in defense, and that I would forever be pigeon-holed because of it. It goes without saying that you have to draw upon determination and grit to keep going (especially after demoralizing interviews). Just keep in mind that transitioning careers is not a linear process, it can sometimes feel more like a random collection of activities. So don’t give up. From start to finish, it took two-and-a-half years to successfully transition to a new career (obviously, this timeline is dependent on the magnitude of your skills gap). Although I’m relatively new to my role at Schwab, I can tell you that I find it rewarding and perfectly aligned with my interests. For me, the investment of time and resources has been absolutely worth it.

I hope that these thoughts can be of some use to you as you plot your own journey of transition.


About The Author: Dennis Shorts is a senior manager in fixed income product management with Charles Schwab & Co, Inc., (Member SIPC). Previously, Dennis worked for over eight years as a defense contractor and prior to that he was a civilian at the Defense Department. He spent four years on active duty as a commissioned U.S. Army officer, serving in signal units in Korea and Washington, D.C. He holds B.A. degrees in English and Biology from Texas Christian University, where he attended on a 4-year Army ROTC Scholarship. He also holds a master's degree in international relations from Georgetown University and an MBA degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in Denver with his wife, Danbee, and one year-old daughter, Eleanor. 

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