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Under intense budget pressure, the Air Force is shedding airmen, so you may find yourself looking for a job in a tough economy. But there are openings, if you have the right training. The key is setting yourself up while you’re still in the Air Force by taking the right courses and obtaining specific certifications and degrees.
According to 10 top defense companies contacted by Air Force Times, these are the hottest jobs for airmen transitioning to civilian life:
Aerospace engineers and designers
Air Force officials say there are plenty of opportunities to get Computer Technology Industry Association or Federal Aviation Administration certifications while still in the service, and those certifications will count toward a Community College of the Air Force associate degree in highly sought majors such as software engineering or aeronautics.
Typically, airmen can only take CCAF courses related to their Air Force jobs, but the Air Force does offer airmen the opportunity to cross-train based on the service’s manning needs, said J.R. Breeding, director of credentialing programs at CCAF. This year, 11 of the 73 undermanned career fields are in the high-demand specialties cited by defense companies, such as cyber defense operations, aircraft hydraulic systems and spectrum operations.
Mother of all certifications
Cybersecurity and information technology are two areas that are really hot, and companies are looking for people with a background in what the Defense Department calls “information assurance,” which is protecting data and systems from hackers or espionage.
A number of career fields offer the training and expertise that private industry is looking for, including cyberspace defense operations, client systems and radio frequency transmission systems.
And there’s one certification that will make an employer’s jaw drop: Certified Information Systems Security Professional.
In fact, you should bring your resume with you when you go to take the test for the certification, said Don Ledbetter, of L-3 Communications.
“Employers will probably be there when they finish certification testing giving them job offers,” said Ledbetter, of the company’s human resources department, “That’s what we do. We go to the places where people are certified and we try to recruit them.”
Getting the CISSP requires passing a written exam that covers subjects including access control, telecommunications and network security, and security architecture and design, according to the SANS Institute, which offers a preparation course for the test.
“That would then kind of push you into that realm of management,” said Kia Silver-Hodge, manager of diversity recruitment programs for Northrop Grumman. “That would open a lot of doors.”
Salaries for people with the CISSP range by geographic region, according to the Academy of Computer Education, a professional computer training organization. In San Francisco, you can earn more than $118,000 per year, while you are likely to earn about $87,000 a year in Florida.
“In Washington, D.C., the average salary is $106,938 but has a range of $72,000 to $147,000,” according to the academy’s website.
Other certifications that will help you get into this field include the CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and the Certified Ethical Hacker, all of which CCAF awards credit toward a degree.
“There are hundreds of IT-related formal training courses delivered within the Air Force,” Breeding said in an email. “Currently, there are approximately 100 IT-related courses delivered at CCAF-related schools.”
While degrees are often required for particular jobs, experience in information assurance is also highly valuable and may be accepted in lieu of a degree, said Paul Besson, vice president of Air Force Accounts within General Dynamics Information Technology.
“So let’s just say you’re an information security expert in the Air Force, and you’ve spent four years working in a network operations center and the job you want to apply for is in the IA field that calls for a bachelor’s degree in information assurance. I will bet in most cases, they would be very interested in seeing someone with four years of direct IA experience, and I’m thinking that in most cases they will allow that to substitute for the degree,” Besson said.
Jobs for maintainers
Airmen who spend their days — and nights — turning wrenches are in demand at companies like BAE Systems, said Chris Davison, manager of military recruiting and veteran programs.
“They’re essentially working the same tarmac and flight lines,” Davison said. “They’re touching the same aircraft. They’re rubbing shoulders with the same personnel that they did when they were active duty. I think that experience takes precedence over maybe some of the other qualifications and certifications that someone might bring to the table.”
BAE Systems is looking for mechanics who have spent years working on aircraft and known them “from end-to-end,” Davison said.
“For example if we were looking for someone to support our F-35 strike fighter program … a degree is a ‘nice to have,’ but more specifically we’re looking for somebody who has the domain knowledge on the aircraft — 10, 12, 15 years of experience, which as you know, you’re not going to gain that from a degree,” he said.
One qualification BAE is looking for is the FAA’s Airframe and Powerplant license, which airmen can earn while in the Air Force and which counts toward a CCAF degree.
Breeding said airmen have three ways of getting FAA certification: They can provide documented evidence of 30 months practical experience on airframe and powerplant systems; they can attend a Part 147 Aircraft Maintenance Technician School; they can take the Air Force A&P Certification program.
“There are approximately 170 FAA-approved Part 147 Aircraft Maintenance Technician Schools located across the United States,” Breeding said. “Airmen who are not in an aviation-related AFSC can gain formal education and practical skills by attending an FAA-approved Part 147 [maintenance technician school].”
In 2012, the average salary for aircraft mechanics was about $55,000, ranging from $35,000 to $76,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Airmen who want to graduate from the flight line to the cubicle might want to consider certifications in aviation, supply and project management,
“If we see somebody come through with a PMP, which is a Project Management certification … we know right there they have a leg up potentially on their competitors, because a PMP is really going to set them apart from their peers,” Davison said. “We see that more in the senior ranks, the E-7s and up.”
Get that degree
Under the current rules, airmen can use tuition assistance — which is slated to be reinstated in mid-April — to take classes for certification, but TA will not fund certification exams, Breeding said.
Airmen can be reimbursed for most information-technology certification exams through either the Montgomery or Post 9/11 GI Bill, and they can take the Airframe and Powerplant certification exam free of charge at FAA-approved testing centers, he said.
While not every job requires a college degree, you will certainly have more employment opportunities if you get a bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, CCAF credit can be transferred to a four-year degree program, Breeding said.
In a 2009 survey of retired and separated CCAF graduates, 82 percent said “all” or “most” of their CCAF credits transferred to a college degree, Breeding said.
Eight firms contacted by Air Force Times participated in a 2012 study conducted by Aviation Week that looked into salaries for jobs that require degrees. The study found the aggregate salary for mid-career aerospace engineers was more than $93,000, and for materials engineers, those who test a variety of materials used for new products, the salary was more than $148,000.
You can’t go wrong with a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, said Kristy Kucharczak, director of global talent acquisition for Raytheon.
“Companies in our industry, including Raytheon, are constantly looking for qualified, innovative engineers,” Kucharczak said in a statement. “Engineers who have military experience are always a benefit since they often have first-hand understanding of the critical missions that we support, and they share in the dedication for what we do for our customers.”
Good examples of the degrees that Lockheed Martin is looking for include aerospace engineering, systems engineering and computer science, said Teri Matzkin, talent acquisition manager.
“Folks who have backgrounds in the military from RF [radio frequency transmission systems] technical disciplines — and they complete a bachelor’s in electrical engineering or related kind of skills — they’re going to fit very well in many different areas,” she said.
With few exceptions, a bachelor’s degree is required to get a job at Pratt & Whitney, said Sam Anderson, site manager for Pratt & Whitney military engines at Oklahoma City.
Former service members with degrees work at Pratt & Whitney as field service representatives, customer support engineers and other professional positions, Anderson said.
“If you have the degree, you’re not going to be a mechanic at Pratt,” he said