Career Development

Transitioning Veterans: Could a Military Background Jumpstart a Career in Risk Management?

Friday, November 11, 2022

By Tod Ginnis

When a military member approaches the transition to civilian life, he or she isn’t your average career-changer. Whether it’s a resume full of job functions and titles with no civilian equivalents or a lack of knowledge about how to convince employers of the value of their unique skills and experiences, the challenge can seem daunting.

One way to ease the transition would be to focus on fields where a military background prepares you for career success. Is financial risk management one of those fields?

Two Risk Managers Share Their Post-Military Experiences

Earl Burns, Jr., senior director of renewable diesel products at PBF Energy, attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy. After his 1989 graduation, he obtained a job with Mobil Oil’s marine marketing group. As a graduating midshipman entering an approved field, his commitment to active military service was waived. He satisfied his remaining obligation with five years as a Naval Reservist. Burns credits his relatively smooth transition to a civilian career to the Academy, which he notes “has a real commitment to getting alumni involved in helping find critically important roles for graduating midshipmen.”

Roger Trimble, managing director at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management and a 2001 graduate of the United States Military Academy, didn’t have the same level of support when he was ready to transition to civilian life near the end of his five-year Army commitment as a cavalry officer. “The attitude was, ‘Captain Trimble, you're part of the cavalry until the day that you're no longer in the Army, so good luck trying to prepare for your transition out,’” he recalls. He confesses to making every mistake possible when searching for a new career, beginning with a lack of planning.

Military to Risk Management: It’s All About Transferable Skills

The most critical task for anyone considering a career change is to demonstrate how the skills you’ve developed are transferable to a different industry or role. Out of curiosity, Burns researched key skills and traits valued in risk managers and compared them to those gained in the military. The significant overlap did not surprise him: from teamwork and problem-solving skills to the need for effective communication and expertise in handling stressful situations, success in the military and risk management have a lot in common.

Whether you choose a naval or commercial maritime career, says Burns, the connection to risk is critical. “There’s compliance and management of various hazards, so I was aware of risk management,” he says. For example, while commercial trade over waterways is safe, you must be extremely careful, because the routes run through sensitive areas that harbor flora and fauna and that support natural resources.

Trimble’s mechanical engineering degree from West Point didn’t open any doors initially, as he had no experience with the new tools the field had adopted since his graduation. “While the military provides you with valuable skills that you can offer walking in the door, the job-seeking veteran needs to augment those skills with practical ones,” he observes.

For example, when Trimble made the decision to pursue a career in quantitative finance, he knew he needed a graduate degree to learn the necessary skills. He believes other transitioning service members would benefit from graduate school, and, indeed, many begin classes before leaving the military. His time in finance is what eventually led him to risk management.

Burns and Trimble both emphasize the need for strong communication skills in the military and risk management. “If you’re an officer, you need to talk to senior officers. You also must speak clearly and deliver guidance … to your soldiers. And if you’re on patrol, you need to speak with local populations. The military teaches effective communication,” Trimble explains.

The military’s reliance on frequent reports that stress the bottom line is good training for a risk management career, says Burns. “Tell me the situation, then tell me what we're doing to mitigate it or fix it. Risk is very much like that,” he elaborates.

Burns laments a tendency at financial institutions to accept reports that are overly “concise,” to the point that they leave out crucial details. “The military pounds into you to make your case concisely, but make sure you include all key parts of the story,” he says.

How to Make the Transition: Leveraging Support

Burns and Trimble underscore the importance of networking to increase potential opportunities. This is a long-term process that should begin during your service. Connect on LinkedIn with people who have successfully navigated the shift to civilian life, focusing on those who work in fields you find interesting.

Many are happy to offer advice, and you might even find a mentor. But don’t be pushy and ask a stranger for a job recommendation. “Seldom have I seen somebody able to fall into the right career straight out of the military, unless they have good connections,” Trimble cautions.

Career transition centers can help, and many companies have veteran recruiters or recruiters that specialize in hiring veterans. There are also veteran mentorship programs. Trimble, for example, works with American Corporate Partners. Meanwhile, Burns suggests building relationships with the civilians you work with while you are still in the military, noting that many government agencies and private contractors work closely with the military.

Burns and Trimble understand the stress military members feel as the end of their service approaches. They want you to realize that people do appreciate your service and the potential value you bring. “Transition is adversity for you to overcome, and I think the military leaves you with a can-do attitude,” Trimble concludes.

Those traits are valued in both the military and risk management, where understanding your role as a member of a team is vital. Indeed, through good teamwork, risk management can help an organization achieve its goals responsibly, rather than act as a kind of business reduction unit.

Trimble says that being a good teammate is certainly a point of emphasis shared by military veterans and FRMs. “In the Army, we were only as good as the lowest-functioning member of our team,” he says. “So, it was important that we train everyone to a minimum standard in order to be successful in accomplishing the mission. Risk management's the same way.”


Tod Ginnis is a content specialist at GARP. He is the author of a GARP blog that is aimed at early-career risk managers and professionals aspiring to earn their Financial Risk Manager (FRM) certification.

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