I have now completed my first full month as a defense contractor, words I never expected to write. Anyone who thinks he can spend two and a half decades in an institution and walk away without disorientation is fooling himself, but I must admit that I’ve been caught off guard by the extent of disorientation. Ten months without a job and four months of true unemployment did not help matters at all. Anyway, here are some observations for anyone getting ready to make the jump.
- The Army is not what you do, it is who you are. If that is not true for you, then I do not know how you could give it 20+ years. There are simply too many times when it is not worth it on a strict cost:benefit basis. The About Me section of this blog lists the four things that anyone knows about me within five minutes of meeting me–I put being a soldier on a par with my marriage and my children. Chances are that when you leave the military–particularly to go into a contracting gig–you will do your job rather than be your job. If you want deep meaning from your work, then plan well in advance and set yourself up to go into public service, teaching, non-profit work, or something else that really fires your passion because those jobs will not come along naturally, and they will entail significant modifications to your lifestyle (more on that later).
- None of the above implies that defense contracting is bad or evil or even particularly venal. You can do work that is both challenging and valuable to our national defense. A single good day at my current job could save soldiers’ lives, make our Army more effective, or save enough money to pay for my entire program many times over. It is valuable work. The difference between what I’m doing now and what I did before, or what I might be doing, is that I don’t have any authority to make decisions, and I am inherently operating from a profit motive. My company exists to make money by doing good work. In theory, government employees do good work for the sake of the work and get paid just enough to keep them doing it. Everyone at my company cares about the quality of our work and the value we provide to the Army, but we would stop working immediately if they stopped paying us. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s how capitalism works. Just be prepared for a little soul searching after decades of pride in your personal sacrifice.
- And about that sacrifice…. Sure you risked your life and you spent years away from home and you dragged your children to eight different schools in 10 years. Those were all very real sacrifices. Beyond that I buried people I loved when they were far too young. I know people who sacrificed their health, their limbs, even their sanity. Those sacrifices are real. But if you’re a senior officer, chances are you did not sacrifice as much financially as you think you did. Odds are you do not pay state income taxes because at some point you were stationed in Texas or Washington or Florida or Tennessee or Alaska or California or Kentucky or some other state that either has no income tax or doesn’t charge military out-of-state income tax. You also receive a housing allowance every month that Uncle Sam not only did not tax but factored into your sales tax calculation–instead of taxing you on that very large amount of money, he actually gave you a tax deduction for it. I don’t know about you, but that was worth about $50,000 per year to my family. My contracting salary is 25% larger than my military salary, but my take-home pay is 1/3 less. With my retirement pay I am still money ahead, but I am not nearly as far ahead as the raw numbers would make you think. Be grateful for what you get as a career soldier, and be prepared for a reality check when you join the rest of the tax-paying country.
- The path to defense contracting is a rut, and it’s deep. There are reasons so many retirees find themselves right back in the Building or at Camp Swampy, doing largely what they did in uniform. First, the military dependence on contractors has grown substantially over the past 30-40 years. Republicans hate government employees but like military spending and love private-sector profits. Democrats like jobs in their districts and don’t much care if they are contractors or government employees. At least contractors pay taxes (see 3. above). The result is a growing number of contracting jobs and a static or shrinking number of government jobs. Of course military retirees do not have to sell their services to DoD in any form, but then we run into factor 2. Military experience often does not translate that well into the true private sector. Senior military officers are mostly generalists with lots of leadership and management experience but few hard skills. To the extent we do have hard skills, they are in areas like delivering fires, military logistics, organizing defense of a forward operating base, etc. There are companies that want those skills–defense contractors. Civilian companies want supply chain managers, personnel managers, IT specialists, sales managers, marketing managers–and they are not impressed with the military analogues. Apple and GE will not learn much about marketing from the Army. My current job requires both a deep and broad understanding of how the Army runs. You could hire a more junior contractor, but he would not be able to do the job. Government employees with years of experience in the Army staff would be just as good and cheaper, but the Army is cutting its staff, not growing it.
- The other option for retirees is the meaning route. Become a teacher, work for a charity, go into the clergy, work in politics. These are valid and viable options that offer a similar sense of purpose to your military career. They pose two surmountable but real obstacles–they do not pay much, and they’re just as hard to enter as the non-military corporate world. Some of these roles–teaching and clergy–require credentials. After you retire is not the best time to get them if you have a mortgage or tuition payments to cover. Others, like politics and non-profits, tend to hire young idealists and then promote from within. They rely on a high degree of inside knowledge and experience. Moreover, they may not want you even if you’re prepared to start at the bottom. Those doing the hiring are understandably leery of older, experience leaders accustomed to high salaries. They may worry that you think you are willing to start at the bottom but will quickly become disillusioned with the low pay or will expect a much larger voice in decisions than your entry-level merits. They may worry that three decades of military life have left you ill-suited for the non-profit culture. If you want to go this route, start volunteering well before your actual retirement and be prepared to wait for an opportunity. Arrange your life on a very austere budget and commit to substituting meaning for remuneration.
I am incredibly grateful that a former colleague sought me out when he had a job opening. I am incredibly grateful to the company that hired me. I am incredibly grateful that the military’s generous retirement pay and benefits gave me the freedom to wait months for an offer rather than lowering my sights in desperation. The world is full of opportunities for those leaving a military career, but better planning would have opened those options up to me more fully. Whenever I counseled soldiers who planned to leave the military, I told them to be sure they were running to something and not just from the Army. That was good advice, and I probably should have followed it a little more closely. I got lucky and everything worked out, but I do not recommend my course of action.