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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : CHALLENGES OF THE WORKING LIFE : ONWARD AND UPWARD : OUT OF UNIFORM : Skilled, Disciplined Military Officers Find Open Arms at Defense Firms When They See Their Prospects Narrow

September 18, 1988|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — When Michal Chick entered the Air Force with a degree from Stanford University, he was eager for a chance to get ahead, become a leader and do something patriotic.

Over the past seven years, Chick has accomplished what he set out to do. By age 31, Chick, a radar navigator, had advanced to the rank of captain and was operations coordinator for a squadron of B-52 bombers. Yet he found it was not enough.

Like a growing number of his contemporaries in the military services, Chick grew impatient with his prospects for career advancement in the military and decided to start over again in private industry.

"For me it just was turning out to be a dead end," Chick said. The top jobs, he feared, were more likely to go to jet pilots.

"The kind of advancement I was looking for and the kind of responsibility I was looking for were not there," Chick said. "I was looking into the future and it was apparent what was going to be available to me. I could have spent several more years in a hunt for a responsible job (in the Air Force), but I'd spent too much time already. I said, 'OK, enough.' "

Chick is among as many as 300,000 military personnel who will leave the service this year to enter the private sector. They face stiff competition in a tightening job market, but employers and job placement professionals say a military background can be the credential that sends a job applicant soaring over a hundred other candidates.

The search for a job can be long and frustrating for military personnel of low rank and limited skills, according to job placement professionals. But those who have advanced in the service and have top-notch resumes are likely to encounter offers so attractive that military officials have begun to worry about a talent drain.

Chick rebuffed attempts by his superiors to keep him."They offered me a different base about a year down the road," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not much."

He moved to San Diego recently from Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Mich., and, after considering several offers, took a recruiting job with Culver Personnel Agency, which has offices throughout Southern California.

"The market for a red-hot junior officer is just like the real estate market is today," said Bob Booth, an owner of Corporate Recruiters, an Irvine firm that specializes in placing ex-military personnel.

"You take the red-hot junior officer who has an engineering degree from a brand-name school, spent four years in the military and was successful--you can think of a zillion companies that almost will hire him sight unseen. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to place these people," Booth said.

"If we're not hiring this kind of person, then the entire economy's in trouble."

Companies such as Procter & Gamble and Honeywell view a military background "very, very positively," Booth said. Personnel departments find military people high in responsibility, accountability and leadership, he said.

"And if we have a female junior officer, she's a pretty hot item," Booth added. "You take a degreed female captain in the Marine Corps or Air Force or a lieutenant in the Navy and she's going to have real good acceptance."

Junior officers, both male and female, are finding opportunities in three areas--sales and marketing, engineering, and administration, Booth said, with "realistic" first-year salaries ranging from $25,000 to $35,000.

Those figures may disappoint an officer who, for example, has been in the service for eight years and has reached the rank of captain. Basic military pay at that level is $29,268 plus a standard housing allowance of $5,465 for a person with dependents.

But, job recruiters point out, the long-term potential for major salary growth lies in the private sector.

The prime time for leaving the military is after four to six years of service, he said, adding that 12 years is the outside limit and may even be too late for most to start their career over again.

At Northrop Corp.'s aircraft division in Hawthorne, former military personnel--both enlisted men and women and commissioned officers--are always in demand, according to Greg Waskul, a Northrop spokesman.

"There's a real problem now in finding skilled craftsmen," Waskul said, adding that military contractors are scouring the country for skilled mechanics. "There just aren't enough people who can build things," he said.

As the Pentagon's advertising campaign implies, the military does provide many recruits with real nuts-and-bolts training and skills that are easily transferable to the private sector.

Northrop, with 47,000 employees, is looking to hire 300 additional people by the end of the year for a new aircraft contract, the vast majority of whom must be skilled in crafts such as those learned in military service, Waskul said.

"There's also a severe shortage of engineers for the aerospace industry," he said.

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