Geoff, looking a lot like Top Gun, while serving with VMAQ-1 “The Banshees”

“My Transition” #28: Geoff McKeel — Marine Corps Aviator to HSE Manager

When you’ve got 20 years of military experience in something that you no longer want to do, how do you land a civilian job?…

My most marketable skill was as a pilot, so I heard the question countless times about why I did not want to pursue that route. I simply wanted to do something else outside of flying, but taking that path had its struggles because of obvious reasons.

Houston, TX — For some of us, childhood dreams become reailty… that’s the case for Geoff who grew up wanting to be Top Gun and eventually became a naval aviator. After 20 years of military service, he found it difficult to land a job in something other than aviation. But, with networking and persistence, he is now an Environmental Health and Safety Manager for the Facilities and Property Maintenance Division of Harris County in Houston, Texas.

DJS: Why did you join the military?

GM:

I saw “Top Gun” when I was 12. As I grew older, the sentiment of “that would be cool to do,” grew into a desire to serve and give back.

DJS: What was your favorite job in the military? Any good stories?

GM:

I enjoyed my tour as a Marine Officer Instructor teaching ROTC to students at Prairie View A&M, Rice University, and the University of Houston. The students during that tour did much more for me than I did for them in terms of pushing me to be a better leader, mentor, and counselor.

I do not have any standout stories other than being proud of the students who chose this path. I started my tour in 2003, just two years after September 11th and during the first months of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The students knew what that they would face immediate challenges after graduation, yet they still chose to serve.

DJS: What were the most important skills or lessons that you learned?

GM:

It cannot be understated that leading and managing people is an essential life skill in which we should never stop improving ourselves for doing it. While that sounds very obvious that people should be good leaders and managers, I think that it surprises most people how much work it takes to become a proficient manager and how much energy it requires to maintain a high level of proficiency in that regard.

It is a skill that requires perpetual personal attention — it took me many years to understand and appreciate that, because I count myself among those who have failed many times at basic leadership and management. Nowadays, I constantly think and study and scrutinize my words, actions, and deeds to determine how I can continue improving my leadership and management skills.

It cannot be understated that leading and managing people is an essential life skill in which we should never stop improving ourselves for doing it.

DJS: Did you know what you were going to do when you left the Marines?

GM:

Somewhat — I had made the decision that I did not want to pursue a civilian flying career after a military career of being a pilot.

DJS: Did you face any struggles?

GM:

Many. My most marketable skill was as a pilot, so I heard the question countless times about why I did not want to pursue that route. I simply wanted to do something else outside of flying, but taking that path had its struggles because of obvious reasons. I also retired after 20 years, so marketing my military “experience” was a difficult sell to hiring managers who had peer candidates of mine for roles with 20 years of experience in the civilian world.

I retired after 20 years, so marketing my military “experience” was a difficult sell to hiring managers who had peer candidates of mine for roles with 20 years of experience in the civilian world.

A great piece of advice to all who are transitioning after 20 years would be to see if you can explain your military experience to someone with no knowledge of the military and see if they can recite back to you your experience. Also, I never found any “military skills translators” online helpful; instead, sit down with an HR professional and work through your resume and experience to package it correctly.

A great piece of advice to all who are transitioning after 20 years would be to see if you can explain your military experience to someone with no knowledge of the military and see if they can recite back to you your experience.

DJS: Tell me about your initial job search process?

GM:

We moved to Houston, Texas from northern Virginia for an opportunity for my wife, so I did not have an intensely DoD-aware landscape like DC or San Antonio or other locations with a heavy active duty presence. However, I was a trained accident investigator from my days as an aviator, so I marketed my safety/crisis management/process improvement skill heavily.

It took some time for it to gain traction, but eventually I started receiving more and more interest from organizations. I also started my initial search attempting to break into medical safety. That field typically requires an MD or an RN, so I had to expand my search outside of that.

I was a trained accident investigator from my days as an aviator, so I marketed my safety/crisis management/process improvement skill heavily… It took some time for it to gain traction, but eventually I started receiving more and more interest from organizations.

DJS: What was most challenging about going from military pilot to non-flying opportunities?

GM:

Either answering the question of why I did not want to fly for the airlines or marketing skills and experiences that were less visible than “stick-and-rudder” pilot time. I was fortunate to have the safety background, which helped. It was also challenging to find which career fields were good fits for almost two decades of military safety experience.

DJS: Did your military skills transitional well into other jobs? Was it a hard sell?

GM:

The safety experience translated well into about 3 or 4 very solid job leads, of which 1 is my current role. The other soft skills like 20 years of leadership and management, aviation-based decision making, strategic planning, etc. were often times difficult to sell, but in the end, I packaged it all as the soft skills supplemented the formal safety education and experience.

Going back on being able to translate military skills into palatable tidbits for employers, I practiced this relentlessly. In fact, I received an offer, in the words of the hiring manager, because of my ability to do this translation and show how it would help their organization. I was the XO at the Marine Corps’ Information Operations Center — I spent hours thinking and rehearsing how to explain “information operations” to people…

I received an offer, in the words of the hiring manager, because of my ability to do this (military skills) translation and show how it would help their organization.

DJS: You got a full education while in the military, to include Command and Staff and War College… did employers understand your education background?

GM:

Not really. However, and when I had the opportunity in an interview, I would explain how PME supplemented experience. Again, it was a bit of a translation exercise in articulating what is taught at Command and Staff, but almost hiring manager understood that in the context of “continuing education.”

DJS: How did you land your current job at Harris County Environmental Health & Safety?

GM:

Literally, through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. This connective chain of people got me an interview for another role at Harris County. When I was not selected for that role, the folks here asked if I would come aboard in a different capacity and I was humbled and accepted.

As a sidebar, I cannot say enough about networking. While not all networking is created equal (not all contacts will amount to viable employment leads), I blanketed Houston as best as I could to meet people and explain my background. Had I not done that in earnest, the friend of a friend of a friend…would not have put me in a position for where I am today.

I cannot say enough about networking…

DJS: Did you use any veteran networking strategy to land your current position? If so, how did you make those connections?

GM:

I applied to and participated in the American Corporate Partnership program. This was tremendously helpful in making substantial professional connections. I also applied to and participated in Korn Ferry’s Leveraging Military Leadership Program. This was a three-day seminar that helped break down participant’s military experience into a marketable elements for resumes, cover letters, and interviews. I also utilized the local alumni association for West Point in Houston to make additional local connections.

DJS: Tell me about what you do on a daily basis?

GM:

I am the Safety Manager for the Facilities and Property Maintenance Division of Harris County. I received my current opportunity because the division was in need of someone to stand up the safety program from nothing into something effective.

While my daily routine varies from day to day, I am currently executing a long-term plan of creating policy, publishing detailed safety guidance, providing tailored safety training to all employees, and going out into the field where our team maintains 149 facilities to determine employee (customer) safety needs.

DJS: What was your initial training like?

GM:

Since I was asked to create something from nothing, I very much fell back on the formal safety training that I had received in the Marine Corps, as well as on the operations and strategic planning experience that I had in a few different tours during my military career.

Another word of advice on this subject for veterans — every organization is different in their “on-boarding” programs; do not be shy about recommending substantive changes to how organizations “on-board” new employees. It can help improve or reinforce the culture of an organization.

Do not be shy about recommending substantive changes to how organizations “on-board” new employees. It can help improve or reinforce the culture of an organization.

DJS: What skills from the military translated into your job and made you successful in your current role?

GM:

The safety, operations, and planning training/experience. I created a plan to start the safety program, socialized with key stakeholders in the division to gain buy-in, managed expectations with reasonable timelines and resource requests, and am now executing that plan which has so far (knock on wood) gone well.

You will find that buy-in is critical when starting a new plan, product line, initiative, etc. — it is not always a given that you will obtain buy-in from stakeholders, but veterans should work hard at that because it is a force to be reckoned with when it happens.

You will find that buy-in is critical when starting a new plan, product line, initiative, etc.

DJS: Are there other veterans in your workplace? If so, how is that dynamic?

GM:

Yes, and it has been great. Besides sharing too many stories about days in uniform, it cannot be said enough that veterans bring to the table the inane ability to solve problems. This has been tremendous for where I work now and I am grateful to be part of group of veterans here.

It cannot be said enough that veterans bring to the table the inane ability to solve problems.

DJS: If you knew one thing before the transition process that would have made your experience easier, what would that be?

GM:

That transitions are like snowflakes — no 2 are the same. You can take the lessons learned from others in transition, but ultimately your transition will be your own experience and do what is best for you to change from life in uniform to life outside of the uniform.

You can take the lessons learned from others in transition, but ultimately your transition will be your own experience…

DJS: What was the hardest piece of transition?

GM:

Being a stay-at-home dad for 9 months because it took some time for the interviews to come after we relocated. I love my kids, but trying to network, crank out emails and resumes, and make phone calls while managing small children made my transition just that much more challenging/special. I asked my oldest if he would help me with my job search. He said “No,” then ran off to play. At least he wants to appreciate his childhood…

DJS: What one piece of advice do you have for anyone reading this?

GM:

Network until it exhausts you. And also keep in mind that just because you are veteran, some folks will not automatically be helpful. It is not because they are being mean or rude, it is simply because they may not know how to take your military background and skills and articulate that to someone who can influence your possible employment. Don’t just work on an “elevator speech.” Work hard on making your experience understandable to someone with no military background to help make the most of networking.

Network until it exhausts you… Work hard on making your experience understandable to someone with no military background to help make the most of networking.

Bio

Geoff graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1996 and transferred to the Marine Corps. He completed flight school and became a Naval Aviator in 1999 with orders to fly the EA-6B “Prowler.” He served with VMAQ-3 (“the Moondogs”) from 2000-2003 with deployments for Operations SOUTHERN WATCH and NORTHERN WATCH. Afterwards, he served as the Marine Officer Instructor at the NROTC Unit Houston Consortium (Prairie View A&M and Rice Universities) from 2003 to 2006. Geoff deployed to Camp Fallujah, Iraq in 2007 in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM 06–08 and then with VMAQ-1 (“the Banshees”) from 2007 to 2010, deploying to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq and Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. He finished his career in Washington, DC as the Director of Aviation Safety Programs, then as the RQ-7 and RQ-21 drone requirements officer for the Marine Corps’ Aviation Division, and finally as the Executive Officer for the Marine Corps Information Operations Center.

Geoff retired from active duty in August 2016 and is currently the Environmental Health and Safety Manager for the Facilities and Property Maintenance Division of Harris County in Houston, Texas.

Top resources

American Corporate Partners — American Corporate Partners (ACP) is a national nonprofit organization focused on helping returning veterans find their next careers through one-on-one mentoring, networking and online career advice.

Korn Ferry Leveraging Military Leadership Program — Korn Ferry is the preeminent global people and organizational advisory firm. This program teaches Veterans how to strengthen their personal, interpersonal and executive communication skills, clearly articulate their unique value, and chart their professional journey based on a strong career strategy

TAOnline — TAOnline.com assists our country’s heroes in gaining employment at the world’s finest military-friendly companies. We help match employers to candidates through the use of pertinent and dynamic career information, unique online tools, relationships with key partners, and our longevity and experience in the military career site business.

October 2009 preparing to fly out of MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan with VMAQ-1 “The Banshees” in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.
January 2013 at Tun Tavern in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia on the day I received promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
April 2, 2017 — leaving the house for my first day of work at Harris County.

Are you interested in sharing your story of transition? Or are you a military transition specialist who would like to share some tips? Send me an email at MilitaryTransitionStories@gmail.com

The goal of this series is to bridge the military-civilian divide in three ways: 1) Highlight the incredible skills and value that military veterans of all generations and backgrounds bring into the workplace. 2) Help transitioning veterans understand their true value and therefore aim as high as possible in their employment and educational goals. 3) Discuss the common struggles, pitfalls and indicators of success in veteran transition, in order to provide better transition assistance from both military and civilian sides.

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David Smith

David Smith

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Hubby & daddy. USMC veteran. Marketing professional. Entrepreneur. I like mountains, whisky, travel and mischief. Live in Norway. Insta: @americanvikinginnorway