Think Your Military Service Job Is Secure? It’s NOT. A force drawdown can appear out of the blue, from multiple threat vectors.
There is no guarantee you’ll promote to the next rank. There’s no guarantee you won’t get hurt. There’s no guarantee you won’t decide you’re done and want to move on with your life. The force drawdown could be you, and that’s the only one you’ll care about!
There are no guarantees!
This Layoff Survival Guide is meant to equip you with the knowledge required to make an informed decision. That will ensure you remain ready for whatever life throws at you during your military journey, from the earliest days in service to the decades long track of the brass officers and senior enlisted.
What To Do While Focused On The Mission
What To Do When A Force Drawdown or Layoff Hits
The Priority: Purpose
Whether you perceive your job to be in imminent jeopardy or not, a series of sensible steps can defend yourself against unexpected job loss. No matter your intentions for the future, we don’t look at this during military service closely, assuming we’re always competitive for that next promotion. But the fact of the matter is, there are not enough slots for everyone to promote. Therefore, a vast majority of people will not make it to that highest rank.
This fact necessitates a radically different view of readiness than most uniformed servicemembers are acknowledging. If servicemembers and an Armed Forces Family will take a perspective Deployment Readiness is Transition Readiness, they’ll be in much better shape for an unexpected “layoff.” They’ll also be fully ready for that inevitable transition out of uniform, whether it’s in a year, or three decades away.
What To Do While Focused On The Mission
The best method to begin protecting the security of your income is to “remain ready for the worst.” But you probably don’t realize your basic pay is already at risk of falling way behind the cost of living. This necessitates you begin immediately seeking alternative sources of income to supplement DFAS (MyPay) paychecks.
47% of U.S. workers describe themselves as not prepared to handle a layoff. I saw it first hand in the service with people who expected to make rank and didn’t. Or people who were expecting to stay healthy and an injury or illness struck out of nowhere, sending them home for good. Military servicemembers are likely a large majority of this group, as most don’t know what we don’t know. Don’t be the servicemember who believes they’ve got it all figured out. The ambush of a DoD layoff is harsh and can come from any number of things:
- healthcare challenge;
- failure to select for the next rank;
- legal problem(s);
- military down-sizing; or
- even your growing tired of the work.
Emergency Fund For the Force Drawdown or Layoff
Job loss from the services can end gradually, or abruptly through a force drawdown and layoff. Ensure your first priority is building up a fully-loaded emergency fund. Also create alternative streams of income as soon as possible! The emergency fund should be a minimum cash reserve of 3-months worth of living expenses (increase it quarterly with cost of living rising, too). The average modern-day job search takes five months. So it’s wise to bump your cash reserve up to 6 months as soon as practical. And more if at all possible. It’s much harder to pursue work you desire if struggling. Lacking funds forces you to take whatever job(s) you can find to meet basic necessities. It becomes exponentially more difficult with dependents, especially with children. Additionally, if you’ve been saving in a retirement savings plan (Thrift Savings Plan, 401K, or IRA/Roth IRA), have a plan for what to do with your savings, representative of your time and energy put forth in that job. Take the savings with you through rollovers into more fruitful opportunity. There are hundreds of options. Reach out to the author to explore what’s best for you.
Downsize Plan For Your Cost Footprint
In parallel with your efforts to build up cash reserves to cover the mortgage, rent, and basic utilities and bulk food (I consider these necessities.), assess current living expenses. Identify “niceties.” Ruthlessly look for areas to cut costs for when the time comes forcing you to do so. It’s an important piece to true family readiness that shouldn’t be neglected!
Entertainment, dining out, special travel, etc. are all luxuries we can easily live without. But where else can you cut expenses? Buying staples in bulk and using them to cook meals for the week? Carpooling, public transit and bike riding to lower gasoline and transportation costs? Cohabiting or taking on a renter/roommate to subsidize your monthly housing expenses is another. These are all potential levers to bring your cost footprint down to get through any joblessness timeframe.
And if laid off, chances are others in your community may be, too. While times are still flush, enter into verbal agreements with your neighbors on ways you’re willing to support each other through job loss. Community is key! And it will create some great relationships for you to engage throughout your military service journey. Then depend upon them during your transition out of uniform later, too.
Providing a meal once a week. Watching each other’s children to save on child care costs. Ride sharing. Laundry help. There’s a ton of ways to support the community…if the community is strong with relationships. This makes it extremely difficult for the Armed Forces Family not on base, who’s probably new to an area,. Or the military veteran and spouse who recently relocate to begin a new life. So get out there and build relationships sooner than later!
Establish the agreement to help each other immediately. Maybe even start practicing some of these steps now—why wait until you’re unemployed to reap the financial and social benefits of community support?
Additional Income Streams
The difference between losing 100% of your income vs 75% is night and day.
The latter will help cover essential living costs and can dramatically reduce your need to draw down savings.
Spousal income, side hustles, real estate, businesses, and passive investments are all ways to supplement your current paycheck. The Liberty Accelerator Program contains a primer for this type of work and income stream development, and you’re encouraged to begin exploring it now. It’s a comprehensive overview on the many ways to build additional income streams, and provides some alternatives to begin immediately.
Skilling Up Before the Force Drawdown or Layoff
The most valuable workers are the last to be let go in the private economy. How valuable can you be to a potential employer? More importantly, how valuable are you to a future employer? We don’t think about this enough in the DoD.
Another good way to ask this question is: How replaceable are you? In the service we are completely replaceable. That’s not the status you want in your next life, and preparing for it must begin immediately.
Will you have skills and experience that are hard for a future employer to replace?
Make an honest assessment of your current knowledge base and expertise:
- Are there deficiencies in any key areas for someone with your job function?
- Are there new skills/credentials/licenses/certifications/etc you can acquire to make you more valuable to your employer and harder to replace?
If so, pursue additional knowledge and skills while times are still “good”. Invest in yourself. You’ll get the most out of it and build a unique, incomparable brand to offer the market once you do so.
And even if you get hit by a layoff, these added capabilities and qualifications will increase your appeal to the market and help you stand out from the pack of other applicants.
Pre-Game – The Job Hunt Before the Force Drawdown or Layoff
Ideally, you’d already have another job opportunity lined up by the time a layoff or force drawdown notice arrives, no matter the source (medical; legal; administrative; promotion miss; etc.). That’s only going to happen if you’ve been actively positioning yourself in the economy and marketplace beforehand. This is completely doable while in uniform, too, and I’ll argue necessary as our paychecks continue falling way behind the cost of living increases of rising prices.
You can do this by actively networking, and through informational interviews with people and companies that interest you from the earliest days in service. Use this time you have now to practice what you’ll have to do to land a job later, or uncover business opportunities that you would otherwise miss for not taking the time to explore something new.
Update your resume and/or LinkedIn profile and social media presence and circulate it widely in the spirit of becoming better known within your industry.
There’s nothing inherently threatening to your current employer or the DoD in doing that. You’re simply becoming a “connector” or an “influencer” or a “maven”, which increases your value to the company, right? Worried about the perception of your commanding officer or senior enlisted leader, or others who write your evaluations, then create profiles so they won’t see you or find you. Cyberspace is big! Use that to your advantage.
Being proactive in developing relationships and tapping the expertise of other professionals yields many benefits. Chief among them is that your drive and talents may get noticed and suddenly, new doors may open to you.
You don’t necessarily need to walk through them immediately. But should you suddenly stumble into bad news, it’s hugely valuable to have these available immediately. The relationships will prove fruitful…if you’ve been nurturing them for years…or decades.
What To Do When A Force Drawdown or Layoff Hits
The layoff process is a whirlwind. Especially so if an unexpected medical challenge disqualifies you from service. Or a failure to select multiple times shows you didn’t fully understand records management and the promotion system early enough in your career. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the emotional shock, the flurry of information thrown at you from out-processing programs, and then the catastrophic disappearance of the familiar military routine and the certain bi-weekly paycheck.
During The Force Drawdown or Layoff
Keep your head during this time period:
- Listen. Don’t react. You will have a flood of emotions, especially if it’s a surprise. Don’t say anything rash. The person delivering bad news is braced for blowback, and if this is a message notifying you of not being selected, few people may reach out to you, so anticipate it. Nothing you say or do at this moment will change the outcome, except for the worse. Take a breath. And calm yourself.
- Ask questions — Am I receiving severance, and if so, what are the terms? Is outplacement help available? What’s going to happen with my benefits? These are all important for you. So play ball at this moment and learn what support is available. Visit here for a longer list of great questions.
- Don’t sign or agree to anything immediately — Take any paperwork home and fully digest it. Review it with an attorney if you have concerns or are unsure about anything!
- Understand legal rights — numerous laws offer protections to employees. For example, if working for a large employer, the Worker Adjustment and Re-training Notification (WARN) Act mandates written notice before a mass layoff, a minimum of 60-days beforehand. Some laws apply to all; some are related to age, minority status, disability, etc. Find a good summary of the principal ones.
- Optimize your severance pay — This won’t apply to most leaving military service, but know that typical corporate packages include 2-4 weeks of salary for every year worked at the company, up to some cap (usually 2-3 months). Push to make sure paid vacation time is put on top of this or use it well beforehand. This book, How to Engineer Your Layoff, is a helpful source of creative ideas for maximizing your severance package, especially for post-service employment.
- Get a letter confirming your layoff — this is very important if you think you may file for unemployment. Be able to prove you were laid off, rather than being fired or quitting, in order to be eligible.
- Obtain copies of your administrative records — These will be useful to pull from for potential future employers, as evidence of your positive past performance.
- Ask previous leaders to serve as a professional reference — in many cases, your boss and team around you will be as disappointed by your departure as you are. They’ll want to be of any help they can in getting you back on your feet fast. So provide them a concrete way to do so, one that will have value for you in the job market or as a problem-solving entrepreneur, or, ideally, a combination of both. Side gigs can become extremely important.
- File for unemployment — if you want to tap into government assistance (and why not? your taxes help pay for it), start on that immediately, as it will take at least a few weeks after applying to receive the first check. Note that, typically, you must apply for unemployment benefits in the state in which you worked, and each state’s filing process is different. Explore this in depth, and ask questions about it before discharge. Visit this online service at the US Department of Labor designed as a guide for the process.
- Extend health benefits — with coverage from a health plan at work, you should be able to extend it for as long as 18 months under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Note: you, not your previous employer, will be paying out-of-pocket for this coverage. For retirees, it’s a bit different. We cover the process in Liberty Accelerator in depth.
Once the dust settles and you’ve taken the above steps, shift your focus to your support network.
Layoffs are a stressful time. For you, for those who care for you, and particularly for those depending on you (spouse, children, aging parents, etc.).
First, discuss a force drawdown or layoff with your immediate family. Ensure everyone knows what’s happened and is clear on what role they’ll need to play during the transition time.
Hopefully you’ve established 3+ months cash reserves and the cost footprint downsizing plan advised early in this article. Be transparent with your family about what the monthly spending limits are. Encourage them to find creative ways to cut additional expenses or bring in addition income. This can help the family without harshly affecting quality of life.
Get the word out to your extended family and friends. This is a time to seek out emotional support of your community. And if you’ve already talked with your neighbors about how you’d be there for each other should one of you lose your job, now’s the time to put those commitments into action.
It can feel awkward to ask for help in this way. But recall, for a kindness to be given, it must be received. Put your pride aside and take whatever help you need. And commit to providing the same help in return once you’re up and running again.
Be sure to prime your professional network. Let it know that you’re now a valuable free agent on the market. Be as specific as you can about the type of work, position, companies and industries, levels, and locations you’re most interested in. The more specific you are, the easier it is for someone to help you by matching you to a good–fit opportunity.
From here, it’s largely about the mechanics of the job search. Much of this is captured in the back half of the book Finding Your Way To Your Authentic Career. Buy that if the idea is new to you, or you need a refresher on these ideas.
Worthwhile Advice to Consider Before a Force Drawdown or Layoff
First, social support is a huge catalyst. Research shows that having a supportive community is the #1 success factor for nearly any goal — weight loss, career transition, breaking addiction, etc.
So try not to go through the job transition process or force drawdown alone. Partner up with others who are going through something similar, too. Have a weekly check-in with them in person or virtually. Share ideas, encouragement, progress, setbacks, advice and humor. It gives structure, accountability, and hope.
If you can afford it, meet regularly with a career coach and a therapist. It’ll be well worth your time and money. If you’ve never worked with a coach before, this podcast will give you a good sense of what to anticipate. Any monetary cost of this professional support pays for itself in multiples if it helps you find a ‘good fit’ outcome, especially if the search drags on for months.
Second, push yourself to find part-time employment while you’re searching for your next full-time position. Ideally, you’ve already established multiple streams of income to bridge the gap that the basic pay and allowances were already creating for you. But it not, even if a low paying job, there’s something about being paid for work that is very healthy for your mind. It reinforces you have value (and you do!), gives a sense of accomplishment, and pushes off the demoralizing stigma of “unemployment”. Only a few hours weekly at minimum wage is effective therapy, and allows for growing your network, too.
And last, view this time of forced transition as a question from the cosmos asking: What do you want to do with your life?
Entertain the idea that, rather than going back to the exact same type of work you’ve been doing. This could be the opportunity to effect your own personal “pivot” into a new, more fulfilling career and life.
The front half of Finding Your Way To Your Authentic Career presents a process for helping you think through a very “big picture” line of questioning. It can be daunting work, but for the two-thirds of workers who are unhappy, successfully transitioning to a new industry and/or a new line of work better fit with values, passions, aptitudes and goals can be life-changing. This podcast offers a sense for some of the transforming insights and benefits this process of self-discovery yields.
The Priority: Purpose (Regardless of Force Drawdown or Layoff)
At the end of the day, a layoff might happen through force drawdown, or it might not. But the fact of the matter is, we all get out of the military some day.
Looking at the bigger picture, you may end up making good money at your job, or you may not. The basic pay and allowances will continue falling behind rising costs, though. That’s a certainty of how pay scales increase annually.
Either way, you’re going to be spending a tremendous percentage of your waking hours on this little blue dot spinning around the galaxy performing some kind of work.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, our work is a large part of our identity and how we experience life. With so much uncertainty out there in today’s economy, we ask the question: What’s it all for? Why commit so much of our lives to working?
The simple answer is: to not starve or die of exposure. But the more existential one is of fulfillment and happiness—to live with purpose.
None of us have any control over the economy, whether the DoD will keep us around, or what pay comes from the government. But you do have control over how you apply your labor, where you grow yourself, what you invest in, and how you choose to spend your time on this Earth, even in the military.
Over the course of your career, the money may come as you hope it will. Or it may not. What’s in your control, however, is how you position yourself with a unique cross-section of Imagination, Knowledge, and Experience to offer the world your services or products. Leadership and your development as a leader will bring that out.
If you wake every day to work you know is meaningful, enriches the lives of others, and fulfills you—then you’ve grasped the real purpose of life. You’re certainly way ahead of the two-thirds of all workers who reluctantly trudge into the office every day to trade their time, and happiness, for a paycheck.
And the kicker is, if working on things that feed your inner being, odds are you’ll outperform. Because you’re playing to your innate strengths. The pay will certainly follow that, for people with problems seek out solutions from those who love what they do.
I strongly advise to avoid getting overcome by the rat race, like I did. Chasing rank and being fully mission capable for an overseas deployment, seeking higher paychecks and titles and trappings of ‘success’. It’s not worth it, and it doesn’t put you in the best position to be fully mission capable for that last day on active duty. Recall, Deployment Readiness is Transition Readiness, from the earliest days in service.
Instead focus on purpose. That’s where the real compensation lies in your career…and your life. And it’s central to your inevitable “military transition” via force drawdown or layoff, or on your own terms.
Jarrod H. Smith. Got Liberty? We’re bringing a fresh new perspective to service to the Nation. Jarrod brings 15 years of experience in Supply Chain and Logistics with the US Navy Submarine Force, Naval Aviation, and information technology systems and is applying skillsets as an Operational Planner to the most important weapons system: the Armed Forces Family. Fact of the matter is, we all “get out” one day. Intentional, informed planning, preparations, and workups from the earliest days in service are key, at every rank. Residing in the the greater Houston region with his wife and four kids, he’s preparing for Liberty beyond uniformed service in small town America. Their Liberty, and mine, is what he served for.
To Your Liberty, #HeckYeah