Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Birmingham
Veterans and those who love them make no shortage of sacrifices on behalf of this country. But one sacrifice that’s perhaps not as readily acknowledged is the obstacles both veterans and military spouses can face when building out their careers in the civilian realm. This Veteran’s Day, Fairygodboss and Getting Hired asked folks in the veteran and military family community to share the ways this identity has aided and at times impeded them professionally, as well as their No. 1 pieces of advice to fellow military community jobseekers.
Do you believe veterans and their families should have the right to build civilian careers free of obstacles and biases? Show your support and #Pledge4VetFamilies here.
As Elizabeth Birmingham, a former Command Duty Officer for the Coast Guard, will tell you firsthand, transitioning from the military to a career in the civilian sector can be “a challenge.”
“To be successful, you need people who want to help you understand the things that need to get done,” she said. “Joining a company with people willing to help was very important to me.”
Fortunately, that happens to be what she’s found at General Motors, where Birmingham was recently brought onto the team in Michigan as a data analyst. She says she was impressed by the tools and resources the company makes readily available to ease the transition, including assigning a fellow veteran already employed by GM to act as mentor to new hires.
“GM was very proactive in providing me with a female veteran mentor before my first day,” she said. “It is so helpful to have someone who has been through the same transition and has had a lot of the same thoughts and experiences.”
As both a Coast Guard vet and lifelong team sports fanatic, Birmingham knows that a culture which fosters this type of camaraderie is the culture for her. She recently shared with Fairygodboss what else has eased her transition into the civilian realm, as well as her No. 1 piece of advice to job-seeking veterans.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I’ve been at GM for 3.5 months. Prior to that, I was Command Duty Officer for the Coast Guard Ninth District Command Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
What factors were most important to you in transitioning from a military to civilian job? Are there any challenges associated with that transition that people may not be aware of?
It’s about the people! Transitioning from a military to civilian role is a challenge, and to be successful, you need people who want to help you understand the things that need to get done. Joining a company with people willing to help was very important to me. Coming from a military background, it is all about teams and people. Seeing that same type of culture at GM was very refreshing and motivating.
It was also important to join a company that tried to make the transition as smooth as possible. GM had so many tools and resources available to help me get all the tactical pieces in place throughout the onboarding process. They made sure my move went smoothly, and that I had everything I needed for my first day of work.
What did your company do to help ease the transition, and how have you felt supported working here?
One of the things that was helpful was having people willing to help me understand the cultural aspects of being in a civilian role versus the military. GM was very proactive in providing me with a female veteran mentor before my first day. It is so helpful to have someone who has been through the same transition and has had a lot of the same thoughts and experiences. GM’s Veterans Employee Resource Group is another amazing asset the company offers to ease the transition. Not having an informal communications network is a challenge, and having people willing to help through the process right from the get-go is great.
Do you believe your military background has provided you with any unique perspectives or talents that aid your career today?
The military requires independence in tasks. In my previous job, the expectation was that I would be able to complete the task well and in a timely manner. This taught me how to efficiently prioritize my time and be results-oriented. The military also taught me to prepare and give briefings, which is very valuable in my current job.
What’s the first (and/or last) thing you do at work every day?
Get coffee!! After that, I look at my action-list for the day and prioritize what needs to get done. Before I go home, I review that list and what I’ve accomplished during the day and begin to think about what I need to do tomorrow.
What about outside of work — how do you most enjoy spending your time?
One of the most important parts of my life through college was playing competitive team sports. I swam and played soccer all through college, and I really believe this is important for young women. Through sports, girls learn how to be both leaders and participants. I think that this is one of the best ways to learn to work together to achieve outcomes and goals at a young age. I believe that my participation on these teams was very influential in getting me where I am now.
Today, I still love working out — particularly running and swimming — and can be found at the gym almost every day. When I lived in Cleveland, I coached girls’ travel soccer and plan to begin coaching again in Michigan. I believe youth sports are very influential in instilling values at a young age, and I love that I can be a mentor for young women.
What’s the one career move you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
Considering it’s early in my career, I have made a couple of decisions that have been very prudent. First was my decision to go to the Coast Guard Academy. This gave me a great foundation of knowledge and instilled a drive to continue to improve personally and professionally. It also gave me many opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible.
My decision to accept the opportunity to work at GM is extremely exciting, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to do what I can to add value and help my team contribute to achieving the GM vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.
What’s your #1 piece of advice for women, and especially other women veterans, who are looking for jobs right now?
Take advantage of your network! When you are transitioning you hear this a lot, but everyone around me (in and out of the Coast Guard) was very helpful in providing me with contacts and advice about the process. Sitting down and having coffee with someone you work with but maybe haven’t talked to much, listening to their experiences, and asking questions can open a lot of doors.
Veteran career fairs are another great resource. These events are full of amazing companies who want to hire veterans because they value our experiences and skillsets.
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