Got Career Security?

On the road, I continue to hear from military officers who are concerned about career security in Corporate America.  Looking at historical data, they see that our government has been growing in size while our economy has been shrinking, and they feel that this indicates a career in federal service is more “secure” than a career in business.  If you were going to have your career in the past, I agree that over the past year you may have felt more “security” by being part of the growth in our government.  However, if you are making the transition out of the military over the next year, you will not be stepping into the economy of the last year, you’ll be stepping into the economy of the next 2 decades. 

To evaluate the relative “security” of a career with the government versus the business market, I would direct you to Chairman Ben Bernanke’s speech on June 3rd, 2009.  Related to our economy, he noted:

          “We continue to expect overall economic activity to bottom out, and then to turn up later this year.”

As I noted in an earlier blog, expectations are that our economy will begin to grow by the end of 2009.  While predictions are that growth will start off gradually, it is a good sign that we will be facing an upturn in the business market that will result in demand for leadership.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) tracks the cyclical nature of our economy (http://www.nber.org/cycles.html).  Our current recession, according to the NBER, began in November 2007 and has already exceeded the average length of a downturn (since 1960, average downturn length is about 10 months).  As we head into recovery, the average growth period calculated since 1960 is 5 to 6 years.  Stepping into a business career at the beginning of this growth period will provide the most opportunity to build a track record of success with a great company and to help guide them through the ups and downs of the future.

Related to our government, Chairman Bernanke noted:

          “Addressing the country’s fiscal problems will require a willingness to make difficult choices. In the end, the fundamental decision that the Congress, the Administration, and the American people must confront is how large a share of the nation’s economic resources to devote to federal government programs, including entitlement programs. Crucially, whatever size of government is chosen, tax rates must ultimately be set at a level sufficient to achieve an appropriate balance of spending and revenues in the long run. In particular, over the longer term, achieving fiscal sustainability–defined, for example, as a situation in which the ratios of government debt and interest payments to GDP are stable or declining, and tax rates are not so high as to impede economic growth–requires that spending and budget deficits be well controlled.”

          There is a lot of information here but, in this paragraph, our Federal Reserve Chairman suggests that we can’t sustain the current growth of our government spending and expansion for long.  Anyone who has been in the military for 20 years will tell you that this means downsizing.  In the Post-Reagan era following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. decided to cut back on our military, resulting in significant layoffs.  Chairman Bernanke highlights the need to control costs in our federal government programs which will likely mean downsizing in government spending and employment.

          One other career path you should definitely factor into your decisions is staying in the military for 20 to 30 years.  In periods of increased global conflict, it makes sense that we will continue to grow our needs for military officers.  As you look ahead at our current administration’s global political policies and its approach to increasing or decreasing our involvement in conflicts, you are in the best position to evaluate the relative “security” of that career path.  This may differ by service, as we’ve seen in the past.  Just 2 years ago, our Army was offering bonuses to retain officers while the Air Force was “shaping” and significantly reducing officers across the board.

          Will you be more “secure” in the business market, the government, or the military?  That won’t be determined by what has occurred in the past – it will be determined by the future.  Looking ahead, nothing is certain in any of those career paths.  Gathering information and using it to help you decide which goal is best for you will increase your chances of finding the best fit for you career.  One word of caution, don’t confuse “comfort” with “security”.  Obviously you are more comfortable with the military because it is where you’ve spent your career to date.  However, there is no correlation between your comfort level in a career and the relative security you’ll have there. 

          For military officers who know they want a career in business, there are a lot of good indicators that they’ll have great opportunities to have quality careers and achieve their professional goals.  Our government, our military, and our economy, will always go through periods of expansion and contraction.  If you know which one is right for your career, look ahead at what you are getting into.  Be wary of assuming that what “has been” is an indicator of what will be.  More importantly, look at your track record of success.  Do you have a history of achieving your goals?  That is a good indicator of future success.  Choosing the goal that is right for you and applying your drive to make it happen is still the best way to have a successful, rewarding career.

Scott LePage