A Civilian Career Move That Led to My Dream Job at Sandia

Sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories

Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories
May 21, 2024 at 9:6AM UTC

Haley Staples joined the military when she was eighteen years old. Now, Haley works a civilian job as a Quality Engineer at Sandia National Laboratories

As Haley recounted her transition to a civilian job, she noted “Since I joined the military as an eighteen-year-old, I had never known civilian life as an adult. That made choosing to separate from the military almost a decade later a stressful decision.” Haley had orders for Permanent Change of Station (PCS) a few months before her initial commitment date was fulfilled. Accepting orders meant assuming another two-year commitment. She said, “I closed my eyes and imagined what it would feel like to stay in and take my next PCS assignment and it felt like I would be going through the motions in life. I needed to separate in order to continue challenging myself. I needed to step into the unknown, scary as that may be.”

We got the chance to sit down with Haley as she candidly shared her experience of transitioning out of military life. She remained resilient while facing the unknown and it led her to find a civilian job she loves, her true dream job.  

What was it like to transition from a military job to a civilian job? Did you face any challenges, and, if so, how did you overcome them? 

I found a job opportunity in Missoula, Montana, and right before I was supposed to take that position, I found out some more information and intuitively, it did not feel right. I turned down that position, after relocating to Missoula. That was the hardest decision I had made to date. I was alone in Missoula, with no friends or family, no life partner, and no job. It really felt as though the possibilities for what I could do with my life were so open-ended and I remember sitting in the hotel room wondering what my next move would be. 

I really wanted to study cutting edge propulsion, but it felt like a pipe dream, and I had a lot of decompressing and reassimilating I needed to do first. I remember feeling a lot of anxiety and living with an overall sense of panic, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other to try to find another job. I went to the copy store and made copies of my resume and started handing them out in downtown Missoula. I love aviation and thought maybe I could get a job at the Forward Base Operator (FBO) at the Missoula Airport. I drove over to the airport, but my GPS messed up and took me past it. I parked my car, trying to figure out where I was, and I looked up and saw the USDA Forest Service sign seemingly glowing at me. I decided to go into the administrative building and met a smokejumper who recruited veterans as firefighters. This amazing woman found a position for me at the Aerial Fire Depot and I was working there a month later as an administrative assistant. Many of the women who I worked with were mothers who had previously been smokejumpers, helitack firefighters, or volunteered on other fire teams. They were so humble; I was in awe of them. 

To this day, my co-workers there were the most impressive, down-to-earth, service-oriented people I have ever met. I needed to decompress from being in the military and transitioning into a federal service job really helped me to do that. It felt familiar and structured, but I was a civilian. It was a soft landing out of the military. I came from a career field where perfection was the standard and I had to unlearn some of my behaviors so that the pressure to never make a mistake would not be debilitating. The people at the Aerial Fire Depot really supported me, like a sisterhood, and impressed me with their ability to go for what they wanted out of life. That set the stage for my future and had profound impact on my life.

Tell us a bit about your current job. What’s your current role, how long have you been in this role and what’s your day-to-day like? 

Currently, I am a Quality Engineer supporting Hypersonic Propulsion Programs, which is pretty cool. To be a part of this mission is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I provide quality assurance to programs, focusing on nonconformances which affect design, and I interact on that level with our industry partners and customers. Additionally, I am involved in veteran’s recruitment, and I am managing a software project for the explosive’s community at Sandia. It is great to be able to connect with veterans and service members who are separating. I am grateful to be involved with that.

In general, what’s your favorite aspect of Sandia’s culture, and how does it help you succeed?

My company’s culture is focused on serving the needs of the nation from the R&D standpoint and many of the projects are years in the making. There are several people who joined Sandia as interns, and I feel as though Sandia really cares about retaining the people and providing a high-quality life. There are over fifteen thousand people employed by Sandia, so there are a range of areas to work in throughout an entire career. What I love about Sandia is that there is huge support for continuing education and being able to get experience in other functional areas for the advancement of your career. Every manager I’ve met asks me what my goals are and how they can help me achieve them. They do this for everyone even if it means their people will change career fields at Sandia. That is special and I am accumulating much more experience here because of that.

Do you believe that your military background has provided you with any unique perspectives or talents that aid in your career today? 

This is a funny answer, but it is honest. I am proud of my service, however, being in the military is oftentimes not very glamorous. I worked underground in a Launch Control Center for five years and I would say that having that sense of endurance and resiliency in a life of service has served me well on the outside. I am not fazed by speed bumps. There were times where it seemed like the phones would never stop ringing, and what I learned as a commander was how to read situations and people quickly and how to communicate in stressful environments. Now, if I identify a potential concern, I communicate it in the moment and then I am moving along to the next thing.

What’s your #1 piece of advice for veterans, and especially other women veterans, who are looking for jobs right now? 

I would say you do not have to have your whole life planned out. Take it one step at a time and know that it does not matter how other people perceive your choices; what matters is that you are living your truth and following your passion. Of course, manage practical concerns and take advantage of people in your life who will be good sounding boards, but listen to your inner voice. You have already served your nation and now it is time to follow what your heart is calling you towards, whatever that may be. It is also okay to try things out and shift gears from there. I have been a flight attendant, a seasonal sales employee, an administrative assistant, a graduate student, an engineer, and an analyst. At the end of the day, I love my life now and I’m happy. Every job has taught me something invaluable and I would not have gotten to this place unless I had walked through the open doors, followed my intuition, and acted upon my convictions.

What advice do you have for someone new to your industry?

Be honest and be good to other people. Sandia attracts people who are the best in their field; there are some really bright minds! What sets people apart and speaks volumes is if someone can be that team player and support the people around them and lead in a positive and motivational way. 

Looking back on your career, what has been your proudest career move, project or moment? 

My proudest career moment was being hired into my current position, in support of Hypersonic Programs. It feels like a dream come true.

Is there anything else we haven’t asked about that you’d like to mention? 

When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, I was terrified to jump off the 10-meter diving platform for a water survival class. I was scared to the point where I was having nightmares about it. I worked with one of the swim coaches and he said don’t think about it, just go up there and step off. So, I did. The second time I stepped off I thought, I can actually see why people do this for fun. 

You might be terrified to jump, but it could turn out to be thrilling.

Sandia has demonstrated rigorous employment and veteran integration assistance, including veteran hiring and retention percentages, availability of veteran-specific resources, leadership programming for veterans, dedicated human resource efforts, pay compensation and tuition assistance programs for veterans and more.

Sandia has been recognized with the 2021 and 2022 HIRE Vets Medallion Award for its strategic work to successfully recruit, hire and retain veterans. Sandia’s platinum designation — the highest category of award — honors the value the Labs has exhibited for the contributions of veterans in the workplace through a long-term career and growth plan that uses the diverse skills veterans acquired through their military service.

Learn more about Sandia’s HIRE Vets Recognitions!

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