The day will come when you hang up that uniform for the last time. How will your next chapter read? More importantly, what are you doing now to script that next chapter? If you’re counting only on TAPS to set you up, you’ll be sorry.

During my last couple of years in the service and this last year as a civilian, I was/am asked constantly, “how can I set myself up for the future?” Then, this meant a future as a SNCO and now it means getting a great job after getting out. The advice is the same no matter what the next chapter is.

Time travel: The easiest solution to all of this is to travel into the future and see what choices work best for you and then execute. As absurd as this sounds, we can make it happen…sort of. Have you ever said, “I wish I knew then, what I know now?” At some point we all do. We look back 5 years and think, ‘if only I would have done this, I’d be miles ahead of where I am now.’ Or maybe we look at the young airman or our children and think, ‘if they just started doing this now, they will be setting themselves up for a great future.’

Good news, if you have ever had similar thoughts as this, you have the ability to do the same for you…you just need to reverse engineer the gift. Instead of relenting on the past, look to where you want to be in five years. Then figure out what you need to do to get there and create some milestones to work towards.

In the service, this is much easier. We can see the stripes on the sleeves and we want 8 but only have 5 at the moment. To get there, we have a road map of what to do and access to those who have reached those goals already. Our problem is that we don’t take a more deliberate approach to getting there and time passes us by. So step one: look for someone with two stripes more than you and ask them what they did at your current rank to set them up for the future. Then ask them what they wish they did to prepare even better. Step two: do that.

After the service, it is much harder to do this. Most of us have a limited view of what we want our lives to look like. We want a good job to support our families and lifestyle, but what does that really mean? A lot of my peers were chasing the 6-figure income and others were looking to fill the gap from what their retirement paid and current income. Others simply wanted a healthy home-life where they had more time with the family. Step one here is to determine what matters to you.

The next thing I would do is go to Google. Just type, “6 figure jobs in <insert city>” or “best work life balance jobs in <insert city>” and explore the different results. When I was originally planning to get out, I was in the 6-figure category because I wanted to move my family back to our hometown and the Mrs. would be staying home. That area has a major manufacturing presence so I read all the job descriptions I could until I found some that interested me. We ultimately decided to stay in Charleston, so I went the work/life balance route and did the same thing.

Once you find a job description that speaks to you, there are a couple more steps to prepare you. First of all, is this something you can see yourself doing in five years when you actually get out of the service. Remember you will be older and have more experience in the future and may not want to be doing as much manual labor or travel as you do now. Take things like this into consideration.

The next two things are most important to truly setting yourself up. What are the job requirements in those descriptions? Sometimes a bachelors is required, sometimes only a certification, sometimes more. This is your road map. Work on checking these boxes now so you will be ready when you do leave the service. For example, my masters degree was not as important as a PMP certification was. Learn what is important and plan those next steps.

The most important thing (and I can not stress this enough) is to network, network, network. Your chances of sending out an application and then being selected for an interview are around 5-10% when you apply to a job ad. However, this goes up to over 80% when you are referred by an insider. In fact, 4 out of 5 jobs aren’t even posted because bosses lean on their team to refer someone they know. Who would you rather hire? A known or an unknown. Become a known.

To do this start off on a site like LinkedIn. Search for people in the company or career field you are interested in and reach out to them. Especially look for those with recruiter or human resources in their job title. These are the gatekeepers that push your resume to the next level. Ask them to look over your resume and tell you where you are lacking. I had about a 50% success rate doing this and have made some good internet pals along the way. Feel free to connect with me and leverage my network (Joe Lawrence LinkedIn: On LinkedIn, the larger your network the better your search results.

Also, reach out to those actually doing the job you want and do the same thing you did to those SNCOs with 2 stripes more than you. Ask them what they did to get there and what they wish they had done to better prepare. Before you know it, you will be well prepared for whatever comes next.

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