What you need to know about salary negotiations

·4 min read

After years of being part of an air crew that flew in F-18s, Matt Klobucher came out of the Marines in 2013 looking for a job. In some ways, he didn’t know what he didn’t know—how to navigate the job market, how to sell his formidable skills, how to hone in on an appropriate salary. But he was determined to find out.

“There’s this huge wall that exists between most hiring practices and veterans,” said Klobucher, of Sheboygan, Wis. “You can’t just go in and say, ‘Oh, I was in the military and I did all this really cool stuff. Where do I sign?’”

Transitioning from one life to another—often within the same country, but in an entirely different context—is one of the most significant hurdles a veteran can face. About 250,000 U.S. military service members enter civilian life every year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many, if not most, are seeking jobs that leverage the skills of their military life to give them the best situation—and the best salary—they can find.

But how do you assess your own worth when you have little or no context after years of jobs that fell into a highly structured system of pay, promotion and mobility—things that might have little in common with civilian life?

“Bluntly put,” said Klobucher, “people in the military don’t have any experience negotiating or calculating their own value because they’ve always been told what it is by the military.”

How can veterans determine what their salary requirements should be? Here are some tips to keep in mind.

First, understand that salaries can be negotiable. Unlike most of the military, many companies have salary ranges that aren’t necessarily set in stone.

“A veteran will benefit from viewing salary negotiation as a transaction,” said Elaine Boylan, a longtime data analyst for Adelphi University’s Center for Career and Professional Development who has worked with transitioning veterans. Learning this early on is imperative for veterans because it then sets the stage for “a reasonable salary throughout their civilian career.” Also: Odds are you won’t be getting a housing allowance, so factor that into your calculations.

Next: Do research ahead of time. This might seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Even such online sites as Glassdoor and LinkedIn Jobs can offer context and afford the opportunity to see pay ranges for your skills, said JD Due, executive director of the Center for Military Transition at William & Mary in Virginia. He recommends that such research be followed by “real conversations” with people you know professionally and personally. That can take transitioning veterans a long way, Due said, in “ensuring their civilian salaries reflect their military compensation.” Other things to research beforehand: cost of living where you’d be working and possible competition—is your experience indispensable?

Beyond the actual salary numbers, it’s important to map your military skills to civilian life. Do you have experience with leadership, handling difficult personnel situations, working long hours or solving problems in certain ways? Knowing how to discuss such abilities can help you get hired and make more. “I never knew how to talk about my soft skills,” Klobucher said.

Accompanying this is some communications advice: Translate military lingo for the civilian working world. That may mean curtailing comfortable jargon and understanding that your communication might require some tweaking and softening for this new environment.

Finally, consider not only the job itself, but who you want to be next. “The first-order question is, what are some of the different things you’ve experienced — the activities and tasks you really enjoy?” Due said. “When you think about those things that have given you prior success, ask the question, ‘How can this exist in the future?’”

It took Klobucher a while to find his path to a master’s degree and a rewarding job in the automotive industry. He applied for more than 50 jobs at first, leading with only his military experience. “None of them ever got back to me,” he said.

That changed, and his job and salary possibilities came into better focus, when he understood a couple things—how to translate what he knew into what employers wanted, and how to be informed when throwing himself into the job-hunting fray.

“Now,” Klobucher said, “I know what I can sell myself as.”