Service members preparing to exit a military career – or veterans who are already there – likely have learned there is no one-size-fits-all approach to transitioning from the service. However, the list below is how I successfully moved into defense acquisitions shortly after retiring from the Marine Corps.
This is not an all-inclusive list, but my two cents from my own journey to becoming a program manager (PM) for the Department of Defense (DOD).
- When looking to get hired within the DOD, choose a location that has a large propensity for DOD civilian labor, such as Huntsville, Alabama; Quantico, Virginia; and Pax River, Maryland. You will need the ability to change jobs and chase opportunities while staying local — this will prevent disruption on the homefront. Additionally, outlier locations that only have five or 10 position postings annually will limit your ability to gain experience and build your resume.
- Unless your current MOS is an exact fit as a PM, you should look at becoming a DOD contractor (commonly referred to as contractor support services, or CSS) supporting a team that is responsible for managing cost, schedule, performance, and risk (CSPR) of a program or multiple projects. They will hire you for your specific qualities – and potentially within a different discipline like life-cycle logistics. However, you will be exposed to processes and procedures that are unique to program/project management. Spend your time as a contractor volunteering for more responsibilities and always look for opportunities to hone your skills for managing CSPR. Have searches already built within USAJOBS for 0343 series (program analyst) and 0340 series (program manager) positions. Use these vacancy postings as a checklist of what it takes to qualify for those positions. Continue to strive to gain that experience when working with your team as a contractor.
- Once you feel that you qualify for those USAJOBS vacancies, start applying. Don’t worry about what program or what building you’ll be working in. Instead, focus on getting your resume to a “referred” status. This means that you made it through the first step and a human being at the program office will be reviewing your resume and possibly calling you for an interview. Apply everywhere and interview as many times as possible. A government interview is unique and should be prepared for differently. Pro tip: you may be surprised to learn that your current government lead is willing to assist you with your interview prep.
- Once selected, take the first offer for a government position for any 0343 or 0340 position. It can be difficult to get into the government from the civilian sector. You will most likely have to use your veteran status to qualify for that position and not every position is open to the public. Most are for internal transfers only. So, take the first offer you receive.
- Once you are in the government, learn as much as you can but always have a plan for what’s next. Chart your course and get as much out of your current position. Once the learning curve starts to shallow, learn how your agency advertises internal or lateral transfers. They may also refer to this as a voluntary reassignment. These are vacancies that are not listed in USAJOBS and are typically emailed internally to the agency with only a week to apply. This is the time when you want to be selective and start applying for positions that will further your career.
- Choose future positions based on where the program is within the Acquisition Life Cycle (development, production, sustainment) phases. Get as much experience in every phase while trying to stay on large programs (ACAT). This is all geek DAU language but will make sense if you start to take interest. Self-learning opportunity: Acquisition Life Cycle.
All in all, if you choose the right location, you will have the flexibility to learn and progress without disrupting your household by changing schools or relocating every few years. There are many resources out there, but one of them is on Facebook. Give Veterans 2 Federal Government Jobs (U.S.) a look. Endless resources can be found there on resumes and interviews.
Caveat: government positions are not for everyone. Several program managers I have encountered are government contractors and choose not to work for the government. Who you are employed by is a personal preference and my personal preference to work for the DOD should not persuade any one person to do the same.