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Brandon Savin joined the military straight out of high school. Over the next six years stationed in the U.S. and England, he earned an associate degree in health-care management and a bachelor's in communications. By the time he left the Air Force in 2021, he was a staff sergeant making $56,000 a year.
Within a year, he'd transition to civilian life, change jobs twice and more than double his salary — without even having to negotiate for it.
"I'm over the moon. I'm grateful. Honestly, that's all I can say," he says.
Here's how Savin, 24, now earns $127,000 as an IT project manager as a contractor with the Department of Health and Human Service in Washington, DC.
Savin did a lot of research to prepare for his transition to civilian life. He thought about what kind of work he enjoyed doing most in the military (project managing in the medical space), where he wanted to live (Washington, DC) and what salary he'd need to live comfortably there (in the upper $60,000s).
Then, he applied to a ton of jobs. He landed two offers in the tight job market before long, both in the $70,000s range after a few negotiations. Then, a third offer came in that blew the others out of the water.
"I was super fortunate to get a position that paid $85,000, which I was not expecting in all honesty," Savin says. He jumped on it and started the private-sector health-care job in November.
"I just wanted to make sure that I was stable," Savin adds. "That's a big thing with coming out of the military. I've known a lot of people that weren't as prepared as they wanted to be."
Security aside, Savin realized after a few months that the job itself wasn't the best fit. Then, in early 2022, a job he'd applied to but never heard back from finally reached out. It was an IT project manager job with the Department of Health and Human Services — more aligned with the work he was interested and experienced in.
They told him the pay right away, and it far exceeded his expectations: $127,000. He didn't feel the need to negotiate and accepted the job in February.
That Savin's two jobs paid more than his expectations may be a function of the wild pandemic labor market, where hiring managers have been boosting starting pay in order to staff up. The typical job-switcher got a 10% pay bump after changing jobs in the last year, according to Pew Research Center.
Savin is also confident his earning power will continue to rise when he completes a master's in IT from Georgetown next year, as well as a Project Management Professional, or PMP, certification, at which point he thinks the $150,000 range isn't too far off.
Even with the market working in his favor, Savin says he had to prepare intensely to get into those interview rooms.
For one, he doesn't have similar networks that a lot of young professionals do. "I wasn't a traditional student going to college with thousands of other students, or someone in the [civilian] workforce," he says.
So, he had to build his own network. In 2020, as he was thinking ahead to his transition out of the military, he began sending cold-messages to people on LinkedIn for career advice.
The response was underwhelming at first, until he perfected his elevator pitch and hit his stride.
The keys are to be genuine and specific. Savin says his winning formula includes saying something like: I saw on your profile you did XYZ, and I'm trying to do something similar. Would you mind sparing a few minutes of your time to tell me about how you got to where you are?
"So many people provided me with solid information" with that approach, Savin says. He got advice on pursuing a master's degree, how to find a job, and even how much to save and invest after leaving the military.
Savin made sure to research how pay can differ between private-sector and public-sector jobs.
"I honestly wanted to go into the public sector because I did find the salaries a bit higher, and for there to be more stability," Savin says. One downfall, though: fewer buzzy perks. "I saw some of my friends receiving things like wellness packages, relocation pay, unlimited PTO, prizes, gym memberships and many other things that I didn't receive in my current job, and that many others don't receive in the public sector," he says.
With that said, he adds that his main focus in compensation packages tends to be salary anyway, "being that the military allowed me to receive free health care for life along with paying for most of my school."
"If I weren't receiving those benefits from the military, then I definitely would've taken a further look into the pros and cons of some of the compensation packages that some private-sector jobs were offering," Savin says. "When adding it all up, it can definitely increase the incentive to work there."
Savin says being transparent about his own career and pay can help others figure out their plans, too.
"When I was getting out of the military, I didn't really know what to expect," he says. "I just didn't really know what I was getting myself into." Reaching out to people on LinkedIn and even YouTube gave him some tailored advice on how to map out his own goals.
And while places like TikTok can be a good source of inspiration to change jobs and go after big pay bumps, Savin cautions young job-seekers from putting too much stock in social media clips. "It looks so glamorous, but it's not always like that," he says.
Instead, "try to get some real personal advice from people working in those fields."
Be honest and ask: What are your goals and objectives? Would you like this field? Are you doing it just for the money? "If so, that's okay," he adds, "I'm not going to knock it."
But "have some intentionality with every one of the decisions, because it's a lot," Savin says. "Changing jobs and pivoting different careers might not be all that it cracks out to be. So just be real with yourself and do a good amount of research to not just blindly make a decision."