How to Make the Jump from the Military to the Cybersecurity Field
Planning for civilian life after service in the military can be a daunting task. Many people join the military at the age of 18 and typically retire at the age of 38, and finding a new job soon after they separate from the military can be one of their biggest challenges, said Tom Marsland, an active-duty Navy sailor who served on nuclear-powered submarines.
“The time will come to an end faster than they think,” Marsland said. “I see so many veterans who are in their last year or even month of service, and they don’t know what they want to do yet.”
Marsland is also the board chair of VetSec, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans pursue a job in cybersecurity. He joined as a way to plan his own military transition.
He believes cybersecurity and the military tend to have a natural partnership that offers veterans a great career path during their transition to civilian life. Read on to explore how veterans can leverage their military experience and skills to pursue a fulfilling career in cybersecurity.
Service members in various areas of the military can bring advantages to the cybersecurity industry.
Why Plan a Career in Cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity is a growing industry with a labor shortage. The 2020 (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study (PDF, 1.1MB) indicates that more than half of IT and security professionals feel that cybersecurity staff shortages are putting their organizations at risk.
- 57% of IT professionals reported a shortage of cybersecurity skills in their organizations, according to The Life and Times of Cybersecurity Professionals 2021 report from Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). This has been going on since the mid-2010s, Marsland said, even as ransomware attacks and phishing have increased.
- There is more of a gap in mid-level cybersecurity jobs than there is in entry-level cybersecurity jobs, Marsland says, a statistic backed up by the ESG report. Entry-level professionals include those who have minimal (1–3 years) cybersecurity experience but also possess a foundational experience in IT, such as a systems administrator or network administrator. Mid-level describes those with 4–7 years of experience in a dedicated security role.
- The demand for cybersecurity experts is growing 12 times faster than the current U.S. job market. This makes cybersecurity one of the most highly sought-after careers in the country, according to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Career and Studies.
How can the nation fill these job openings?
The 2020 National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education publication on cybersecurity and military service (PDF, 528 KB) shows that there is a shortage of cybersecurity professionals in the field that could be filled with veterans equipped with skills in risk management as well as a security clearance obtained while in service. In the United States, about 200,000 service members transition to civilian life each year and enter the civilian workforce with an average of 15 years of training and experience under their belts, according to the Department of Defense.
What Are Skills Needed for Cybersecurity?
“I see a lot of veterans have the skills that cybersecurity employers look for in the industry just from the technical aspects, even if it’s not directly cybersecurity skills they come with,” Marsland said. “Any employer knows veterans are going to be trainable and have a high work ethic.”
Military experience — which often includes working with high-tech tools — can help veterans develop important skills for working in the space, such as situational awareness and understanding of the chain of command.
Here are some of the skills and potential jobs that could match, according to Marsland:
Some intelligence background
Jr. penetration tester (EL)
Penetration tester (ML)
Technical computing skills
Security operations center (SOC) analyst (ML)
Jr. security analyst (EL)
Jr. security engineer (EL)
Policy and procedures
IT auditor in governance (EL)
Any role in compliance (EL)
EL: Entry-Level, ML: Mid-Level
Marsland said that service members in various areas of the military can bring advantages to the cybersecurity industry.
“From the enlisted side, most jobs are technically oriented and require self-drive, determination and the ability to learn quickly on your own,” he explained. “From the officer’s side, they’re trained to be world-class leaders and run organizations that directly contribute to the security of the nation. Cybersecurity provides a similar mission.”
The sense that they are defending the nation in a slightly different realm can also offer all veterans a sense of continuity in their work.
In the United States, about 200,000 service members transition to civilian life each year and enter the civilian workforce with an average of 15 years of training and experience under their belts.
What Are Barriers to Entry in Cybersecurity?
Although cybersecurity and the military seem to have a natural partnership, there are still challenges to pursuing a career in this industry.
- Cost of certification is expensive. The Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) is considered the highest standard in cybersecurity certifications. However, the GIAC exam costs $949. Fortunately, the military offers resources to assist in costs. A list of available resources is available at the end of this post.
- Cybersecurity isn’t exactly an entry-level field, Marsland said. Many of the jobs require some level of experience that may be closer to mid-level, but veterans may struggle to articulate or translate their skills in civilian terms.
- Veterans often assume they are unqualified. According to Marsland, many veterans are very procedure-based, so when they see a job description listing 10–15 qualifications, they tend to feel pressured to meet every single one of those and end up not applying at all.
“I think using the ability while you’re in the military to actually think about your life post-service and what you want to do can help overcome these barriers,” Marsland said. He points out that the military will train you to do any job that they need you to do.
Common Steps to Finding a Job in Cybersecurity
Building and developing a career in cybersecurity starts with knowing who you are and what you have to offer then bridging that gap with job opportunities that match your skill sets and interests. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to figure out what works best for you based on Marsland’s suggestions.
1. Think about your post-service career.
It’s important at this stage to plan and set realistic goals, even if it means you are considering taking a paycut for an entry-level cybersecurity position. Set aside a little bit of extra time to think about what you want to do and how you can use resources at your disposal while you’re still in service to get those certifications and have time to plan ahead.
2. Learn how to translate your military skills in civilian terms.
Marsland says the best way to do this is to speak to someone in the industry and find a mentor who is a veteran and can see what you’ve done and how it might apply and correlate with required skills. Work on formatting your resume to better describe your military service and how it can boost a company’s revenue and/or reduce their risk.
3. Discover your niche in cybersecurity.
The NICCS has a Career Pathways Roadmap digital tool that allows any professionals including veterans to explore and build their career path through specializations and skills development. You can even search through job titles in different areas of cybersecurity to see where you best fit and learn mobility through these connections across the industry.
4. Build a professional network outside of the military.
Start with creating a LinkedIn profile and use that opportunity to share more about yourself outside of service and narrow down what you’re looking to do. Marsland said that active military members need to work on maintaining a network outside of the military and not wait until they’ve already transitioned to start building.
5. Get certified.
Earning industry-recognized certifications, particularly in GIAC programs, is critical to developing your career in cybersecurity. According to Marsland, every military branch has a credentialing opportunity where if a veteran goes through the training, the military pays for the certification exam voucher. Certifications allow you access to employers and often lead to job opportunities with the help of a program sponsor.
“In cybersecurity, it’s not all roses [for] a military member thinking they’re just going to get out and already be making six figures,” Marsland said. “You’ve got to do a lot of prior planning and owning your destiny, which is a really big piece of this.”
“The sense that they are defending the nation in a slightly different realm can offer veterans a sense of continuity in their work.”
Additional Resources for Veterans
- Military Tuition Assistance: benefit paid to eligible members of all the military branches, providing the ability to pay up to 100% for tuition expenses.
- Navy Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL): vouchers issued on a first-come, first-served basis to enlisted and officer personnel in the Navy to specific certifications.
- GI Bill Comparison Tool, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: digital tool that compares GI Bill benefits at approved schools, employers and training providers. The GI Bill can also be transferred to dependents or spouses or used for even more advanced education, Marsland said.
- Information Assurance Scholarship Program (IASP): program designed to increase the number of qualified personnel who are seeking jobs in information assurance and information technology fields within the Department of Defense.
- CyberVetsUSA: initiative that provides free online training, certification and employment opportunities to transitioning military service members looking to enter the cybersecurity workforce. Courses include training in cybersecurity operations, security infrastructure, software engineering and more.
- Cyber Veterans: sponsoring initiative for free cyber training and industry-recognized certification for veterans who want to live and work in cybersecurity in Virginia.
- Military Skills Translator: digital tool that matches a veteran’s military occupation code and other professional military skills to civilian job opportunities.
- Cybrary: compilation of free study guides in cybersecurity training ranging from CompTIA A+ (801) to CISSP to Certified Ethical Hacker.
- Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA): 17-week program that provides training for careers in cloud development to transitioning service members. Program graduates also have opportunities to interview for a full-time job at Microsoft or one of their hiring partners.
- VetSec: nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans transition into cybersecurity jobs through a community and mentorship of more than 3,300 veterans.