10 Factors That Determine Your Salary after the Military

10 Factors That Determine Your Salary after the Military

We conduct classes on bases as a part of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and other base educational programs. Whether it’s our ‘Evaluating Employee Benefits’, ‘Marketing Yourself for a Second Career’ or our ‘Financial Planning for Transition’ class, a frequent question is, “How much salary can I expect to get in the corporate world?”

It seems common for folks to assume there is a universal scale for converting their military specialty and status to something equivalent in a civilian position. That’s not the case at all. Here are some factors that will help you define what will ultimately determine your future salary.

Where you move. You know there are high cost and low cost areas of the country. Using salary.com, you can figure the cost of living differences between two locations. For example, the Washington DC area has a cost of living 41% higher than San Antonio, Texas and pays wages 15% higher than San Antonio. So you’ll earn a bit less in San Antonio but live at a higher standard of living.

Your competition. Are you one of a few people after the position or one of dozens? The more qualified applicants there are, the worse it is for you. You lose your leverage as the company has more choices and doesn’t have to meet your requirements.

Small or big pond. You have to decide if your future is with a small or large company. Research using Fortune magazine rated companies indicates the larger the firm the greater the salary in most cases. The exception is in small up-starts that expect big things in the future. These up-start companies may pay well or offer other financial incentives for top talent but the extra pay is to help mitigate the greater risks associated with a up-start company. Non-profits, like associations, aren’t known for their top-market salaries.

Supervisor-leadership role. There is a big difference when you are applying for a leadership and/or supervisory position instead of as a team member. The boss takes on a program or a department with budget and program concerns. Plus you usually have supervisory responsibilities and you know what a challenge that can be.

Pulling back on the throttle. You may have burned the candle at both ends during your military career. Now that you are getting out, de-stressing has appeal. Maybe you want to find that work-life balance you’ve heard so much about. You may decide to take a team member position as a starting job and move up the ladder over time. Taking on less responsibility will decrease your salary potential.

Pedal to the metal. Unlike the person in the previous factor, you have decided to continue the quest for greater challenge, status and/or money. This means you will be seeking positions with the greatest responsibilities, the best opportunities for career development and upward mobility. You’ll command better pay if you meet these position qualifications. With the higher salaries, companies expect you to be loyal to the firm whenever and wherever they need you. They don’t pay the higher dollars for nothing—you’ll owe your soul to the company store.

The free spirit. You’ve spent part of your life dedicated to the country. You could look for work in something you know; where you have experience and training. Or…you could go way outside the box. You could do something you’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t or wouldn’t in the past. Something fun, a hobby, a calling, an adventure, start a business maybe. Now there is no sense in trying to calculate a salary for future endeavors. There probably is no set salary in the market place. You’ll set the salary or project a salary based on your business plan or needs.

You’re a rookie. We see ourselves as the culmination of all our education, experiences, training and jobs. Of course, as we assess ourselves, we place a high value on our abilities. This leads us to think we are worth a high-dollar amount of salary. Well to the hiring firm, you’re a rookie, the potential new guy. They don’t know you at all and you represent a risk to the company. All your resume feats of greatness could be embellished by excellent writing skills. Your salary expectations you’ve based on your past experience and knowledge may be out of sync with the firm looking at an unknown quantity who talks a good story. This is where networking and knowing someone on the inside can help. An insider can vouch for your past and lobby for you.

For the greater good… You may decide to forego the higher salary for the opportunity to continue to serve a section of society. The type of job that serves others usually doesn’t pay well. These jobs are usually government (possibly lower than fed level), non-profit or charities. You people in this category probably aren’t fixated on salary anyway. You’re the type who receives greater value from the service opportunity.

Family matters. You’ve spent your time in the military being at the beck and call of your country. When it mattered, the Service came first. Stop thinking about you and your transition and think about your family situation. Spouse’s desires and needs. Ages of children and their schooling. Special family needs. Extended family concerns. Sometimes the best situation for your family is stability. Stability may mean staying put and it may mean moving to particular location for specific reasons. There’s no military-civilian pay equivalency scale when it comes to family.

Now that you’ve had a glimpse at some of the variables involved, you understand how we don’t have a short answer to the salary question. Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics page at http://www.bls.gov/bls/blswage.htm. This page has an incredible amount of wage data. See if you can find where you fit.

One of the best pieces of advice we can offer is to try to do what makes you happy. Don’t sweat the numbers if possible. Peace of mind is a valuable commodity.


About the Author

Lt. Col. Shane Ostrom, USAF (Ret), CFP®
Lt. Col. Shane Ostrom, USAF (Ret), CFP®

Ostrom is MOAA's former Program Director, Financial & Benefits Education/Counseling