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Transitioning Your Military Aviation Experience to a Civilian Aviation Career

So, you’re getting out of the military soon (or already have) and you want to use your training to pursue career in civil aviation? Great — the industry needs you! You served your country and we could use skills and training that you have been given, but there are a few things that you need to know to make the transition smooth. Some of the tips will pertain to anyone applying for jobs, but the veterans’ circumstances are more unique than those of the new graduates from civilian A&P schools. I may sound a little brutal at times but you deserve to know the truth. I know you can handle it. This article is very important to me and I want to get it right. I want to help all of you veterans make the transition smoothly and successfully so that you can join the civilian workforce and enjoy the life that you deserve and for which you fought. Before I begin, I would just like to personally say, “Thank you for your service.”

I am a veteran and made the same journey to the civilian workforce many years ago. My position now gives me access to hundreds of resumes for mechanic jobs. Unfortunately, many of the veterans submitting resumes will never get the callback. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t good candidates or that they are unemployable, it just means that most veterans don’t seem to understand what a civilian employer wants. I don’t think veterans understand how different the civilian industry is from the military. There are many misconceptions and much misinformation keeping good candidates from getting the jobs for which they apply. You need to understand the facts and let go of the myths in order to get that civilian job.

Uncle Sam versus the real world

There is a big difference between military aviation and civilian aviation. Military aviation is a government-funded, non-commercial enterprise that is not concerned with profits, customer satisfaction, competition or labor issues. Uncle Sam has deep pockets, and depending on the mission, monetary returns on his investment aren’t really his goal. He can afford to take completely untrained men and women straight out of high school and give them an education and train them for one specific mission. Unfortunately, many of these missions are unrelated to normal civilian aviation missions. Uncle Sam can afford to train and assign a mechanic to fly full time with each aircraft as a crew chief. These crew chief jobs do not exist in civilian aviation. Unless you work depot-level maintenance in the military, you are not going to have the experience that most civilian employers seek. In this economy, most employers are trying to get the most mechanic for their buck and they need to staff their shops with as few employees as possible. The more skills that a mechanic can contribute to the maintenance department, the fewer employee salaries and benefits the company is required to pay. This directly affects their overhead and ultimately their profits.

When I was in the Navy, our squadron maintenance department was made up of a variety of mechanics and technicians. We had engine mechanics, hydraulic mechanics, sheet metal mechanics, electricians, avionics techs, radar techs, records administrators, maintenance control techs and quality control techs. Other than the specialized avionics and radar skills, every mechanic who I have in my shop can do all of these skills. They can also paint aircraft, weld, do basic machining and composite fabrication and do the required documentation that the FAA expects. I was an E-6 petty officer when I got out after eight years. I was 26 years old and I had two WestPac cruises under my belt. The last two years I was assigned to a Marine Corps air station to work liaison for transient Navy aircraft requiring maintenance and servicing.

I thought I would be perfect for a cushy management job that paid big bucks with lots of perks. I thought I would take the civilian world by storm and impress them with my resume. After all, I was a veteran with numerous medals and letters. I had flight deck experience and I had been overseas to all of these countries that many civilians couldn’t point to on a map. Why weren’t the job offers coming in? I was a young, strong, confident, ambitious, enthusiastic, patriotic aircraft mechanic. Why didn’t anybody see that?

One day, a shipmate who had gotten out before me called and asked if I’d be interested in a job. He set me up with an application and interview where he worked. He said it didn’t pay much and because there was a hiring freeze going on, they could only hire Vietnam vets under an apprenticeship program. I was disappointed because I was a leader and I couldn’t understand what I would be doing in an apprenticeship program. What could they teach me that I didn’t already know?

Starting over

A wise man once told me, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” He knew what he was talking about. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t know anything about aviation. I didn’t even have any tools of my own because tools were always supplied. After eight years in the military, I was back in basic training again, except without the marching and PT. I was a helper for mechanics that were in their thirties, forties and fifties.

This was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was able to start over and learn skills that I didn’t have from mechanics who had been performing them for decades. I never went to an A&P school, so I was able to get that same education and get paid for doing it. If I hadn’t taken the apprenticeship job (at lower pay) and I had taken a higher paying manager’s job, I wouldn’t have had the basic skills to maintain that job. As an apprentice, there was little pressure put on me to perform or to produce so I was able to focus entirely on learning as much as I could. Utilizing the discipline and respect for structure that I learned in the military, along with the maturity I gained from my experience, I became a model student and was able to fast track my training. Soon, I was working projects on my own and my supervisors gave me more responsibilities. I was able to take the A&P test, get my license and understand what I was doing.

Many vets come out of the service with A&P licenses, but they don’t have the practical skills to go along with those licenses. They want to walk into a great job as an A&P mechanic but don’t realize that the A&P license is only a “license to learn.” This is difficult for many veterans to understand. They worked hard and became senior NCOs with many junior enlisted men and women working for them and now they need to start over. It can be a very humbling experience. Things move very slowly in the civilian aviation world and that can be very frustrating.

Your “new life”

The secret is to understand that and to adapt. After all, this is what we are talking about, adapting to civilian life. Aviation is just a part of your new life. It breaks my heart to see the veterans who come out of the military and can’t adjust to civilian life. I don’t have all of the answers and I can’t know what they are experiencing. Everyone’s experience is different and everyone deals with things differently. This has been a problem that society has faced since the beginning of time. War changes people. It doesn’t matter what your job was in the military — it changed you. This is why the military is made up of young adults. At age 18, you were ready to be molded into a warrior. You were ready to give your life for your country and do whatever you had to do. You adapted to the military structure and accepted its rules and its mission. Now, there is a new set of rules and a new mission. The sooner you understand this and accept this, the sooner you will be find comfort in your new life and career. This is all anyone wants for you.

Recently-discharged veterans are generally optimistic and excited about their new lives. They look at it as a new adventure and many of them are “coming home” to their families. Unfortunately, they soon experience the reality of the competition for the “good” jobs. As I said earlier, most employers would rather operate undermanned than to over-hire and be responsible for unprofitable employees. This is why it is so important to approach your job search intelligently.

The University of Washington’s Carelink faculty and staff assistance program offers this piece of advice for those coping with the loss of a job:

“When one door closes, another one opens; but it is torture in the hallway.”

We already agree that the past is the past and you are looking forward to a change. Good. It’s important to get the door of the past closed as soon as you can. This action can free you to travel through the hallway of the present. Now you must start taking steps toward the door of the future.

This will be the first time in a while that you have no income, no health insurance and nobody to tell you what to do with your day. You need to get started on a plan and you should take advantage of any benefits that you have earned from your military obligation. Sign up for Veterans Administration insurance. Unless you are totally disabled, you won’t get full benefits but they will help you in the case of something catastrophic. Get in the system.

Now let’s focus on your career. It’s important to take advantage of the fact that you have time on your hands to explore educational opportunities to enhance your job skills and marketability. Use these benefits to help you with education costs. If you already have an A&P license, that is a start, but you are going to need many other skills to compete with the average civilian A&P school graduate. Look into an A&P school for training. With your real-world experience and the in-depth training from an A&P school, you are a much more attractive candidate for a job.

I’ve seen many veterans taking government contract jobs (such as DynCorp, L3 etc.) working in depot-level maintenance. They get paid well, have great benefits and get more training and experience than the average military member working on the same aircraft. It’s a good transition to civilian life, too. The only downside is that you might not be able to “come back home” to live. Many of these jobs are overseas.

Ready your resume

Instead of getting into all of the steps to writing a resume, I would like to give you a couple of tips. When you are writing your resume, you must realize that we don’t know or understand what all of the acronyms that you use mean. I see resumes that are filled from top to bottom with slang, abbreviations, mission codenames and military jargon that I’m sure is important to you and the units you were in, but doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m sorry. If I have 10-20 resumes to read, that one gets passed over quickly.

Part of your transition to civilian life is learning how to communicate with the natives. Tell us about your strengths and skills. Tell us what your goals in life are and don’t bother to use all of the catch phrases from “how to write a resume” guides. Be honest and tell me in your own words. That’s who I want to meet ­— the real person. To be honest with you, I am not looking for experience from a veteran. I am looking for potential. As an employer, I am already attracted to your loyalty, your patriotism and your discipline. I know that you can follow orders and be reliable. I can teach you the things that I will need from you, but I need to get you in the door first. A good, honest resume will get me every time.

Starting your job search

Where do you start your job search? In this aviation community (and in helicopters in particular), it’s a small world. Your best bet is to start researching with the manufacturers. The industry is made up of manufacturers and operators that are closely connected, and all of the jobs available usually originate from them. They sponsor many job fairs, online and live, and they are motivated to fill open positions. Go to their Web sites because they all post job vacancies. There are various job agencies dedicated to aviation (such as JSFirm) that will post your resume for free. The employers looking for resumes will pay the fees for access to your resume and for advertising open positions.

When you interview with me, I want you to relax and be yourself. I don’t need to see you in a suit (you won’t be required to wear one at work) but I don’t want to look at your nose ring or tattoos, either. We are a fairly conservative group of people and we are looking for like-minded co-workers. Be punctual when you interview with anyone. This is our first impression and believe me, it will stick. Even if I have hired people who were late for an interview, that impression remained. During an interview, be honest, positive, confident (but not cocky) and enthusiastic. The interviewer wants to walk away liking the applicant. Even though I might not work with you directly, I want to employ people who I like and to whom I enjoy talking. I can’t judge your skills during an interview but I can judge your personality — and I will.

Staying employed       

You’re hired! You got the job. How are you going to keep it?

A phrase that I recently heard (and read) goes like this: “You were born with two eyes, two ears and one mouth. You should use them in the same proportions.”

Watch what is going on around you. Listen to what you are being told by co-workers and speak with intelligence and forethought. Avoid comparing your new situation to your old one. Don’t let the past hold you back by thinking things like, “This isn’t how we did it in my last unit.” We all have our glory days but they are best left in the past. Make new ones. You are just beginning a new adventure and the sky is the limit.

Most companies have a probationary period so that they can get to know you and see what you can do. Some places hire temp agencies to do the screening for them. Whoever it is that hires you and gives you a chance, give them your all. If there is something that you don’t know, tell them. Most employers hire veterans for potential. If you have certain skills and talents, let your employer know but wait for them to assign you the job. Follow orders.

Your “fighting spirit”

Having raised boys of my own and other people’s boys at work, I have dealt with shops full of testosterone. The military thrives on Alpha personalities and military leaders use these personalities to accomplish their missions. While these personalities exist in civilian aviation, too, fighting and arguing will not be tolerated. Civilian society will not tolerate violence and bullying in the workplace. No employer will set themselves up for lawsuits by allowing it. The old thought of, “If you have a beef with a co-worker, take it out behind the line shack and settle it,” is not condoned. Leave your fighting spirit with the military.

I hope these tips help you make the transition easier. We welcome you “back to the world” and the industry needs your help. You deserve the American dream and a career in aviation can help you attain it. To sum things up, honesty, understanding, patience and a little humility go a long way in the civilian world.

Again, thank you for your service.

Terry L. Peed has been in aviation for more than 45 years and is a licensed A&P and IA. He is the chief inspector for Helicopter Specialties Inc., a certificated FAA repair station that performs heavy helicopter maintenance, completions with painting capabilities and avionics installations.