Expert Career Advice for Graduates, Veterans, and Career Changers

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Are you a college student, recent graduate, career changer or veteran entering the civilian workforce? If so, author Ronald Willbanks has expert advice to help you achieve success in your new career. Willbanks is author of soon to be released Career by Design, a practical career guide specifically for those entering the workforce or changing career paths. Below, Willbanks offers exclusive advice for our readers.

What practical advice can you offer college graduates entering the workforce?

    • Think of your first job as an apprenticeship. Try to learn as much as possible about your chosen field. In addition, learn the jobs of everyone you touch – i.e., find out what people do who provide inputs to your work as well as who uses the outputs of your work. Learn about your industry. Consider your first job as an opportunity to become an expert at what you do. That should be your personal aim. Likewise, align your work-related goals with those of your boss. Contrary to popular belief, your job is not just to design or produce widgets… your primary job is to make your boss successful. Besides, if you’re going to do something, you might as well be very good at it. Focus on trying to create your “brand” and earn a reputation as someone who is engaged, a key contributor, has integrity, and produces results.
    • That said, you should also create a career plan. If you have no plan, you could hop from one job to another without purpose or aim. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” If you have a career plan, it means you have a destination. Your plan could start out simple. For our example, you’ll work in this entry level job, earn your technical certification, join the local chapter of widgeteers and work towards being promoted to a lead or senior widgeteer within three years. In year four, you’ll go to graduate school to earn your master’s degree. When you graduate, you’ll apply for a management position – either with your current employer or with company X or Y. By year eight, you’ll earn your next technical certification and begin presenting as a speaker at widgeteer conferences. By year ten, your goal is to be director level, etc.
    • Real life will require you to check and adjust your career plan periodically, but merely having one puts in you elite company.

Most people change careers at some point. What advice do you have for career-changers?


    • Changing careers is scary at first. I think what we fear most is venturing into the unknown and leaving a job that has become part of our way of life. Our daily routine makes us feel safe and secure. To leave our comfort zone requires courage. When considering a career change, I urge you think about the kinds of roles that would allow you to leverage your strengths and make you happy. (After all, feeling happy is what it’s all about). Speak with people who are already working in the type of role you’re interested in. Specifically, talk to successful people who are already doing what you want to do. You can find them by leveraging your personal network or joining the relevant professional organization’s local chapter. As you become involved or take on a leadership role in the local chapter, you will build relationships. When the timing is right, your new friends and colleagues may be able to arrange a warm introduction to influencers or hiring managers. Network, network, network. Invest in social media tools such as LinkedIn and others to put the word out about what you’re interested in. If you want to pursue a profession, insert yourself into it to become a part of it.

Any specific advice for veterans entering the civilian workforce?

    • When I first got out of the Army, I needed some transition time to acclimatize back to civilian life. If you can swing it, give yourself a little bit of a break between leaving the military and entering the private sector.
    • In today’s job market, veterans have a wide range of organizations that will help you find work. In fact, I believe veterans have a leg up on their competition. As a hiring manager, with all things being equal, I always gave preference to veterans.
    • If you are going to be an individual contributor and want to continue doing the same thing as your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), research what the current job market is like and how you can maximize your worth. It’s better to have a realistic understanding of what the market will bear. If you want to do something different or your MOS doesn’t translate well to civilian occupations, I suggest you follow much of the same advice as the career-changer above.
    • A word of caution for officers. Civilians don’t necessarily have to follow orders without question like they do in the military. Instead, it’s better if your direct reports “want to” take your direction or they will find ways to undermine you. You may have to adapt your management philosophy. Spend your first 90 days or so observing other successful leaders in your organization and assess what their leadership style is like. Like any good military person, you can learn to adapt as necessary.

Do you have any resume and interview tips or tricks for job seekers?

    • RESUMES: For entry level or less experienced job seekers, format your resume with a Career or Professional Summary section first instead of Objective. In your summary section, list what you do well and what your interests are. You can include things like strong communication skills, well organized, and process focused even if you haven’t had a chance to prove it on the job yet. All hiring managers are looking for these skills. In the remainder of your resume, emphasize your education, certifications, and any relevant experience, skills, or hobbies. Be sure to tailor your resume to the particular position to which you are applying. Also, make sure your experience doesn’t just list duties, but includes achievements. Employers want to see things that will indicate what kind of results you can produce. Likewise, include the main keywords contained in the job posting. Applicant tracking systems typically pull candidates based on keyword matches, so take the time to do this. Generic resumes won’t cut it. Lastly, proofread your resume to ensure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. You don’t want to give a recruiter or hiring manager any excuse to disqualify you.
    • INTERVIEWS: Almost every interviewer will ask you three pre-qualifying questions. If you get these answers right, you increase your chances of moving on in the process. For this piece, I assume you are interviewing with the hiring manager. First, she will want to know if you’ve done your homework and will ask “What do you know about ABC Marketing?” This is a test question so be sure you research their website beforehand. I also advise that you search for news releases to see if there has been a recent leadership change or significant transaction such as a merger, acquisition or sale. Asking a follow-up question on a hot news topic can impress.
    • The second big question interviewers tend to ask is “Tell me a little about yourself.” You should have your 30-60 second elevator speech well rehearsed so you can deliver this confidently. This is your personal pitch and should include why you are qualified and why you applied. This is not the time to go off script and tell them your life story. Keep it relevant and succinct.
    • The third question is “Why should we hire you?” or “Why do you want to work here?” This is where you tell her why you’re interested in her company / industry and what skills you hope to leverage and how you will contribute to their mission. Explain to her that you want to be a part of the great things they are doing and believe you can be a key contributor to the company’s ongoing success.
    • The rest of the interview will more than likely be geared toward specific job responsibilities. Interviewers like to ask you what your strengths and weaknesses are. When you respond, the strength you select should be one that distinguishes you from your competition. Take the time to share an example to validate your claim. Conversely, we all have weaknesses. Instead of dancing around it, it’s better to show you are self-aware of your weakness and explain what you’re doing to minimize it. For example, I advise you disclose a soft skill weakness like you’re hesitant to delegate. If you tell her you’re working to overcome this by employing the 75 percent rule – i.e., you’ll delegate a task if the person can do it at least 75 percent as well as you… so you can coach them up to 100 percent over time – she will see you have a plan to overcome it.
    • As the interview ends, always have a list of questions at the ready. This reinforces the impression you are prepared. If she asks if you have any final comments, be prepared to make a final pitch. Your closing remarks should emphasize how you are the most qualified candidate and why you’ll be an asset to the company. You want to leave them with a final, lasting impression of why they would benefit by hiring you. By the way, qualities such as being enthusiastic, well organized, enthusiastic, easy to work with won’t hurt you.

Once offered the job, how should one go about negotiating pay and benefits?

    • Before you get to this point, I hope you’ll have researched the average salary for the position you’ve applied for. While salary.com or similar websites can provide a general range, you should adjust it based on factors such as current economic conditions and the local job market. When it comes to salary negotiations, I recommend you don’t show your cards first, if possible. Your initial salary will be the baseline against what all your future raises, bonuses and promotions will be calculated against. If you request a salary that is too low, you may find out later you are the least paid person in your department. I’m sure you won’t’ be happy knowing that. If you quote a salary that is too high, they may be put off or even rescind their offer.
    • If asked what your salary requirements are, you could respond by asking what the salary range is that was budgeted for this position. This is a reasonable question to ask and knowing what they intended to pay for the position is a data point that is instructive. Whatever their response is, don’t reveal your emotions by jumping for joy or by looking crestfallen. Should the salary budgeted be acceptable, of course, you’ll require an amount on the high end of the range and ask them to explain what other benefits are included. If the salary offer is too low, ask if there are any incentives or if they’d be willing to revisit your compensation after six months, based on your performance. Going into salary discussions, you should have a minimum number in your head that you will accept.

How can one advance in his or her career while maintaining a work/life balance?

    • This is a great question and only you can answer it based on what is important to you. Work/life balance is different for everyone. If you’re single or both you and your better half work at the same company as research scientists, you may eat/drink/breath your work and love what you do. In this case, working 80 hours per week is no problem for you because you’re happy.
    • For the rest of us, we may need a little more time off from work to spend with family or on other interests. Fortunately, the best companies to work for recognize the need to have work/life balance for their employees. In addition, they realize they’re competing for top talent and offering competitive pay and great fringe benefits is good for business. Employers of choice offer benefits such as comprehensive health care insurance coverage, onsite childcare services, exercise facilities, flexible schedule, telecommuting, matching for retirement savings programs, and an honor system for paid-time off. If you are fortunate enough to work for one of these companies, you’ll probably not have to worry too much about maintaining a healthy work/life balance.
    • The reality is, however, these benefits come at a cost. If you’re in the majority and not employed by one of these forward-thinking companies, you may still be able to negotiate some schedule flexibility with your boss. For example, if you need to take off Fridays at Noon to care for a loved one, ask if you can work nine hours per day Monday through Thursday to make it up. As long as you are a top performer, your boss will likely do what she can to keep you. In other cases, you may not have this kind of flexibility with your current employer. In my career, I have turned down offers for more money because I didn’t want to travel while my children were young. In other cases, if job stress was too high for too long with no end in sight, I have changed jobs in order to gain a better work/life balance. Again, this is a question only you and your family can answer.

Ron Willbanks’ book, Career by Design, is scheduled for release April 3, 2019. 

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1 thought on “Expert Career Advice for Graduates, Veterans, and Career Changers”

  1. The book by Mr. RON WILLBANKS , CAREER BY DESIGN, Is a great resource book for one to match your talents and interests towards a lifelong rewarding career.

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