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Courtney Gieber overcame the challenges of Army basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina; medic training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas; and then a yearlong tour in Ramadi, Iraq.When she was medically discharged from the Army in 2010, the 25-year-old Gieber faced a new challenge: transitioning into the civilian workforce after spending several years in the military.
After a frustrating year of unsuccessful job searching, Gieber signed on as an intern with Alpine Access, a Colorado-based firm offering virtual call centre and other services. During the year since, Gieber was hired on fulltime and promoted to project manager.
Gieber shares her experiences and observations about making the move from the military to the civilian workforce:
“Military culture is much more rigid than civilian work culture.”
I remember on my first day in my new job at Alpine Access after returning from my deployment, I was given a tour of the office. As we were walking around my guide was referring the executives by their first names, which was completely foreign to me after being in the Army. Taken aback, I asked her, “How should I address [CEO] Chris Carrington?” She said, “Well, everyone just calls him Chris.” For me that really epitomized the difference between the military culture and civilian culture. In the Army you never address a person by first name.
I have also found I have much more autonomy in the civilian work culture. In my current position at Alpine Access, I am able to balance work, home and school because of the flexibility in my schedule. In the Army I had very little latitude to make decisions both at work and around how to balance work and personal life.
“It was strange adjusting to an environment where I didn’t feel like I was going to be told to do push-ups at any given moment.”
Becoming accustomed to speaking freely and getting over the nearly incessant fear of being scolded for not being in compliance with any one of the many codes that a soldier must adhere to – dress-uniform codes, properly addressing a superior, base rules — took some time. Looking back, I’m sure I must have seemed odd to my coworkers as I settled in; however, the transition from active military service to a desk job is just not as easy as it may seem.
“The interactions in the military are more scripted and structured.”
There’s a rhythm and a predictable set of outcomes in nearly every military interaction. In the Army I was a specialist, E-4, which is considered “lower enlisted,” so most of my interaction took place at the position of “parade rest” and using ranks to refer to my superiors. I also grew accustomed to filtering my thoughts and speaking formally.
When working with civilians I share my opinions both with coworkers and superiors with less formality. When I started out at Alpine Access, I had some ideas about how we could improve attrition on one of our accounts, so I put all of my thoughts in to a Word document and sent in on to the COO. I was astounded at first when, he actually looked at it and second, told me he thought my ideas were good. In the military, I would not have had an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with a one-star General.
“The advancement process is significantly more structured in the military.”
For an enlisted advancement, depending on the branch, a test and an oral board are required. Then once the test and/or oral board have been passed the actual promotion is based on a points system. In the civilian workforce it is generally through applying for a promotion or simply by being given a promotion by a superior due to solid and consistent performance.
Three bits of advice from Gieber:
1. Remember: You’re not in the military: You cannot treat civilians the same as military because they won’t respond well. It’s important to take a more gentle approach.
2. Be personable: In the civilian workforce, people have choices about who they give their business and respect to which is different than in the military where you are assigned people and services without choice. Being personable, which is not how most operate in the military, can go a long way towards building your career.
3. Spending less is good: Be conscious of spending throughout your decision making. In the Military budgets are meant to be spent not conserved. In fact, Military budgets are used in their entirety to ensure the same amount of money is received the following year. Yet in the civilian workforce people are praised for coming in under budget.