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Life after pulling the pin: 10 interview skills

What employer wants to hire a 50-year-old person new to a profession? Not many, unless you take steps right now to secure your future.

I recently had a conversation with a Captain who was contemplating retiring from the force and seeking employment in the private sector. His nickname is “the chin” — he has a very prominent chin with a deep cleft in it like Kirk Douglas. He’s been on the job 26 years.

“I could leave right now at about fifty-three percent of my pay. That’s $54, 000 walking to the mail box,” he said proudly. “I’m only 48 and the city pays part of my medical insurance when I retire.”

I asked him how much of his medical insurance the city pays. I asked if they also cover dental.

The chin didn’t know. I asked if he had graduated from college. “Nah,” he replied. “I took a couple of college courses early in my career, but never went back. I didn’t need it.” I asked what dollar amount his current lifestyle was per year.

He didn’t understand what I meant.

I explained: “Right now you’re making over a hundred grand a year. Your can retire at about fifty-four grand. Where is the other forty six grand going to come from?”

The chin said he was thinking about opening up a landscaping business or going for one of those “state jobs” in the court system. I didn’t know what to say so I decided to tell him the truth. It went something like this: “Right now you’re making over a hundred grand a year. You work straight days with weekends off. You have paid medical and dental insurance. You get four weeks of vacation a year, twelve paid holidays, funeral leave, and earned days if you don’t book off sick. You have a take-home car with unlimited use and a yearly raise in pay. As a captain you pretty much come and go as you please. You need to stay where you are as long as you possibly can. You haven’t prepared for retirement by either obtaining educational credentials or trade related work skills. In today’s economy there is nothing viable out there for you.”

I could tell he didn’t like the message I was delivering. The question for our readers is: Are you preparing for your retirement?

Pulling the Pin
No one that I know gives serious thought about retirement when they only have five years on the job. When contract negotiations are underway, all the young guys want the instant money while the old timers want to negotiate a cost of living increase for retirees and paid medical and other fringe benefits. I was just as guilty as anyone else way back when, but fortunately for me there was a succession of police union presidents who understood that none of us can do the job forever and those of us who last for twenty or more years eventually retire. It’s become rare to see anyone with over thirty years on the job, although it was common during my era.

Most of us come on the job at around 21 years old, so after 20-25 years of serving and protecting most of use are still relatively young. The question becomes, “What employer wants to hire a 48 or 50 year old person?” Not many, unless you take steps right now to secure your future. You may be surprised to learn that our unique skills, combined with either academic education or specialized training, make you very valuable in today’s marketplace if you can get the interview.

Public and Private Sector Jobs
Ideally, you want to position yourself so that your police pension allows you to continue your lifestyle at the same level it was when you were on the job. Your second career should be all extra income. Most of us don’t pay into social security while we’re cops so you need to think about getting your quarters in so you can receive social security income when you become age eligible. Remember, the best time to look for a job is while you still have one, so don’t retire until you’re certain you will immediately employed elsewhere.

I talk to law enforcement officers all the time who read an employment add in the local paper for an investigative position at a state agency such as the motor vehicle department, states attorney’s office, or one of the social work agencies. However, it has been my experience that by the time the job announcement hits the paper, the position is already filled and they are just going through the motions. What really puts you in a position to get the job is a combination of credentials, networking, and name recognition. In addition to academic credentials (preferably a masters degree) are you an expert in accident reconstruction, arson investigation, ballistics, computer technology, etc? Is your name instantly recognized by public and private agencies as the “go to” person in your department? Do you have a reputation for investigative excellence? Are you the type of person who is known for hard work and integrity? Are you a member of law enforcement associations such as the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators (IAFCI) which are often comprised of former police officers who are now directors of insurance fraud units, bank audit departments, company internal affairs offices? Are you published? Would your Chief or division commander give you a good recommendation? Where are retired members of your department working? Can you network with any of them to secure the type of job you’re looking for?

Does the police academy in your state hire full time instructors? Do you have a special skill area in law enforcement which would make you a valuable asset to their staff? Most colleges now have a criminal justice program as part of their curriculum. Do you want to teach full time? This would usually require a Masters Degree, but I can tell you from personal experience that using your skills to make a significant difference in young people’s life is very rewarding. If you’re interested in teaching and have the required credentials why not start teaching part-time while still a law enforcement officer? The community colleges are a good place to start and this teaching experience will fill out your resume if you do decide to apply for a full time teaching position.

Lateral Transfer
Here in New England it’s not unusual for an officer to start at age 21 and retire at 41 with half pay. It’s becoming more and more common to see these relatively young men and women begin a new career at another department and start working on a second pension. Since the officer is already certified, there is no need for the department to go through the expense of sending him/her to the police academy and the department gains someone with twenty or so years of experience.

Basic Interview Skills
Other than lateral transfers, securing a position outside law enforcement always involves an interview process. Since law officers traditionally stay at the same job for more than twenty years, our interview skills tend to get rusty. Here are some basic tips:

1. Find out as much as you can about the job and organization to which you are applying. The internet is a good resource, but never substitutes for a site visit.
2. Even though you may have submitted one, bring your resume with you.
3. Practice your oral communications skills.
4. What makes you different than the other candidates that will be interviewed for the position? Practice a response to the questions, “Tell us about yourself and why you want to be a ____.
5. Dress as you would for an oral examination board. Suits for men and business attire for women.
6. Arrive early.
7. Smile, shake hands, and act enthusiastic about the job you’re applying for. Don’t sit until the person(s) interviewing you do.
8. Don’t chew gun, or clean your nails with a paper clip while being interviewed
9. Sit up straight, make eye contact when appropriate, and don’t interrupt people when they are speaking.
10. Be prepared to respond to the question, “Why do you want to leave your current position?”

As Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” I recently interviewed a police officer for a teaching position. He did very well in the formal interview and thought the “test” was over when we went to lunch. His entire demeanor then changed. He must have thought we were back on the street because every third work was the “F” word. He slouched in his chair, made disparaging remarks about some of the employees around us, took out some chewing tobacco, offered it to me, and asked if I wanted “a wad.”

There is life after pulling the pin, but you need to prepare for it. I like the Marine Corps saying, “There aren’t any retired marines, just marines.”

You will never stop being a cop, but you may as well do something in your second career you enjoy and get paid a lot of money.

Semper Fi
Larry the Jet

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.