Building a Post-Service Career in the Construction Industry

By Christopher Miller, Guest Contributor (Hill International)

The construction industry has long been a favored destination for U.S. military personnel leaving the services. Often, both officers and enlisted personnel quickly rise to become leaders at construction companies, as evidenced by the many veterans in C-suite and other decision-making roles at industry-leading companies.

Of course, every veteran’s experience transitioning to, and succeeding within, the construction industry is unique. The four interviews below were conducted with leaders at project and construction management company Hill International, Inc., a large company with nearly 3,000 employees and projects and programs ranging from elementary school renovations in suburban New England to multi-billion-dollar airport capital programs in the Middle East. Each of the professionals interviewed entered the construction industry after successful military careers, three concluding their careers as officers and one as an enlisted airman. All are company leaders, with multiple direct reports and responsibility for operational and/or project budgets, team performance, and client satisfaction.

Although each leader’s experience transitioning to the construction industry was unique, there are also several similarities and common themes. For anyone considering a career in the construction industry after serving in the military, read on to hear about the challenges, surprises, and accomplishments of the transition process.

Luis Lugo, Senior Vice President and Southeast Regional Manager

Luis Lugo rose from Private to the rank of Staff Sergeant after nearly 9 years of service in the U.S. Army. He then completed Officer Candidate School and served an additional 11-plus years in the Army, rising to the rank of Major. Highlights of his military career include serving as Commander of two infantry companies, Commander of the U.S. Army Sniper School, and Commander of Recruiters in South Florida, where he led the district to the top rank out of all 51 U.S. recruiting districts. At Hill, Luis leads the company’s Southeast and Latin America Region.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What was your experience when you left the Army to join the private sector? What steps did you take to identify industries and companies you were interested in?

LUGO: I considered pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, engineering and construction, and sales, and researched each. I interviewed with several Fortune 500 companies, but I also knew I needed to stay in the South Florida area for my family. This limited my options somewhat.

I had been through the Army Transition Assistance Program, which was helpful in assisting me to define what I wanted out of a career post-military. It’s critical that when you conclude your service you develop a vision for yourself. Take the time to figure out where you see yourself in a few years. What will you be comfortable with? How will you define success? I knew I wanted to lead and be in an executive role running operations. Things change, people evolve, but having that vision helps keep you focused on what’s important.

Ultimately it was my work as the Commander of the recruiters in Miami that led to my first post-military job. As part of my job I joined the local Chamber of Commerce to help facilitate access to my recruiters at local high schools and colleges, and through networking I met PACO Group, a national engineering consulting company. The president of PACO reached out to me and after a whirlwind interview he offered me the position of Chief Administrative Officer, which I accepted.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What skills did you learn in the Army that translated to the construction industry? Were there any military skills you didn’t expect to use?

LUGO: When I assumed command in Miami of the recruiting company, I underwent 12 weeks of training in recruiting techniques and methods. In effect, I learned how to “sell” military service to potential recruits. I honestly didn’t think I’d need those skills in the construction industry, but in fact I use them every day. Leading operations for a consulting company is largely about selling and recruiting. You need to find and hire the right professionals to manage the projects you are delivering, and then you need to evaluate them and retain them so they can go on to greater opportunities and responsibilities.

As far as skills that I don’t use in the construction industry, and I think this is something anyone who has served in combat arms can appreciate, is that in the infantry our skillsets were predicated on waging war, and those skills are not at all applicable to the private sector. You go from always preparing or prepared to fight to zero, and you really have to bring back the intensity and aggression but do it without losing focus. For me, that was the biggest challenge. Honestly, it took me three years to truly retire from the Army and understand that the stakes were different and that my life had changed.

Michael Radbill, P.E., Vice President and Transit Practice Leader

Mike Radbill spent 25 years, active and reserve, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. With Hill, he specializes in transit construction projects and programs, overseeing the company’s project management oversight work for the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, among other assignments.

BRICKS & CLICKS: You served as a combat engineer in USACE, but now lead a team focused on public transit. How did that transition happen?

RADBILL: Presenting is one of the main skills I developed in the Army that I still use today. Murder boards, as we called our briefing rehearsals in the Army, were great training to prepare for and talk to project owners and teams. These critiques forced me to learn how to present and present well. They also taught me the importance of being prepared—do the work and don’t try to BS your way out. This doesn’t work in the military, and clients will appreciate your efforts to be straight with them. I’d also say respecting the position and the person is an approach to communication I’ve brought with me from the Army into the civilian world.

Something else the Army gave me that I use every day is confidence. I believe in my abilities and I’m not intimidated by superiors, although I’m always respectful. If I have a question or see a problem, I have enough faith in my skills and my knowledge to present it, thoughtfully, and to expect an answer. I’m currently working on a multi-billion-dollar project for the Federal Transit Administration in Hawaii, for example, where this approach is serving the team, the client, and me very well. Everyone knows what’s going on and what needs to happen, from our team leaders on down.

I’d also say attention to detail, specifically at the personnel level, is something I’ve carried over from the Army. Leading a platoon, I was responsible for making sure every soldier was paid at the end of the month. And I made sure that happened, no matter where a solider might be on that day, how late in the day it was, or what the weather was doing. Each solider in my command was paid on time. Today, I take the same approach to making sure our subconsultants get paid. It seems obvious, but it’s tied to performance.

On the other side of the question, in the Army I was blessed with motivated people who knew how to follow orders and work as part of a team. That’s still true in the private sector, but I’ve also had to learn how to motivate and inspire, rather than simply give orders and know they will be carried out correctly provided I was clear with my instructions.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What advice would you give to someone considering the construction industry following a military career?

RADBILL: I’d suggest four things. First, recognize it’s a new environment. Nobody will be wearing a rank, and you’ll be one among many, but don’t let that scare you—you have the skills you need to succeed. Two, be confident in your experience, in your abilities, and in yourself. Three, continue to respect your superiors. It may seem obvious in the military, but in the private sector this isn’t always the case. Lastly, consider acquiring some industry-specific credentials. Many officers leaving USACE will be registered Professional Engineers, but there are other credentials, such as a Certified Construction Manager and a Project Management Professional, that can help move your career along.

James P. Beckett, P.E., CCM, LEED AP, Vice President

For 20 years, Jim served in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps, where he oversaw and managed the design and construction of numerous major facilities projects. In his final assignment, he served as Director of the Special Programs Office at the White House Military Office.

Prior to his work with the Special Programs Office, he managed numerous construction projects around the world, including an Aircraft Carrier Weapons Elevator testing facility at the Philadelphia Naval Station, various training projects in support of the Atlantic Fleet Seabees, and a new Naval Base in Naples, Italy. He also served as Facility Program Manager at the U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, where he was responsible for a design and construction program worth $150 million a year. At Hill, he leads major projects and programs for such clients as NASA, the Department of State, and the General Services Administration.

BRICKS & CLICKS: You served as project manager on several high-profile DOD installations and construction projects, then served in a similar leadership role on other government projects after joining the private sector. What were the differences between these roles? What were the similarities? Was there anything specifically that surprised you?

BECKETT: One thing that really hit me when I transitioned from active duty military to the private sector was the change in the level of responsibility. The military pushes you to lead like no other organization. They provide training and then put you in a leadership role where you quickly learn to act on your own. And so, you do. Then, just when you feel like you are at the peak of your game and have mastered your assignment, they move you to another duty station and the cycle repeats. If you do well, your “reward” is a series of ever more challenging duty stations and increased responsibility. If you slip up, even just a little, your choices of assignments and opportunities for promotion narrow.

It feels at times like a “do or die” culture, but in retrospect, the confidence the process imparts is priceless. By the time I finished my military career, the Navy had entrusted me with construction programs worth half a billion dollars and leading teams of more than 100 construction management professionals. By contrast, when I moved to the private sector, my first assignment was leading a 5-person team on one $80 million project. The project was by no means “easy,” and I worked just as hard on my one project as I did managing entire programs for the Navy. It was just a matter of where I fit within the chain of command. I really hadn’t anticipated just how different the private sector culture would be from the military culture I had just left.

BRICKS & CLICKS: As an officer, you were responsible for executing orders/missions dictated from above. As a project manager at Hill, you certainly still have assignments and functions to fulfill, but the leader-subordinate dynamic is very different. Could you describe these differences? Was it difficult to adjust?

BECKETT: Hill allowed me the latitude to manage my projects as I saw fit and not through a prescribed set of processes and procedures. With that latitude came a much less formal relationship between supervisors and subordinates. I will never forget the day shortly after joining Hill when I got a call from Hill’s president, calling me just to ask how the new job was going. “Call me David,” he said. Such a call would be a rarity in the military, where communications strictly follow the chain of command. 

BRICKS & CLICKS: What do you wish someone had told you when you left the Navy for the private sector? What would you tell someone preparing to make the same move today?

BECKETT: I feel as though I was very well prepared for the transition from public sector to private. To its credit, the Navy did a really good job preparing me for the transition to civilian life once my retirement request was approved. Part of the transition was a pre-retirement seminar that included advice on translating your military experience into comparable terms civilian employers would recognize so that your resume would be intelligible and you could better explain yourself during an interview. They even had a class on how to dress. No kidding, after 20 years of never having to think about what to wear each day (Um, khakis?) it was one of the more valuable sessions!

BRICKS & CLICKS: What is the single biggest difference between delivering a project for the Navy compared to delivering a project in the private sector?

BECKETT: Frankly, I find that delivering a successful project is the same as a consultant as it was when I was with the Navy, where I was the owner. I still manage projects as if I were the owner. Treating contractors firmly but fairly, keeping your client informed and engaged, and demanding peak performance from your team—those are all key traits you need no matter what you wear to work.

Becky Blankenship, Project Manager, Seattle Office

Becky Blankenship served in the U.S. Air Force as an Engineering Apprentice for four years, acquiring the skills and proficiencies she would then apply to her construction career. She has managed projects ranging from fire stations to public libraries in the Pacific Northwest to Army Air Force Exchanges in South Korea.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What were your responsibilities managing USAF projects? How do those responsibilities carry over to your work at Hill?

BLANKENSHIP: While in the Air Force, I served as a drafter, GIS technician, surveyor, and project manager on USAF military construction projects and Air Force Civil Engineer Center projects. In my managerial role at the Air Force, I was responsible for overseeing the contracting and acquisition process, reviewing designs for compliance with military standards, orienting civilian project teams with military protocol, serving as a liaison between project teams and the military chain of command, routing project documents through the internal permit review process, cost estimating, and managing project risk.

These responsibilities align very closely with my role at Hill. Like the military, each owner has budget constraints, design standards or preferences, document review processes, and a unique culture that must be recognized and respected. Just as I did in the Air Force, I manage the budget, schedule, and scope of projects so owners can trust the process and focus on their own mission.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What did you expect to find when you entered the private sector after your Air Force tenure? How did your expectations play out?

BLANKENSHIP: When I entered the private sector, I was accustomed to earning accolades and promotions based on the merit of my accomplishments, my leadership capabilities, and my character. I had fully embraced the USAF core values of “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.” But when I shared my military experience with potential civilian employers, the response was generally, “that’s great—thanks for your service. Now tell me about your licenses, certifications, computer technology skills, and business acumen.” Without those things, I wasn’t a competitive job candidate, and I had to work extremely hard to catch up.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What are the differences between serving in a formal chain of command and reporting to a supervisor? How are they alike?

BLANKENSHIP: When serving in a formal chain of command, decisions are made at the highest level and passed down the chain. The level of accountability follows the same path. Reporting to a supervisor, on the other hand, typically requires more responsibility for making one’s own decisions, or perhaps presenting the supervisor with a recommended course of action. You have a higher level of responsibility for decisions and you’re expected to take more ownership of the outcomes in the private sector, basically.

BRICKS & CLICKS: What would you tell someone leaving the Air Force today about working in the private sector? What do you wish someone had told you when you left?

BLANKENSHIP: I wish I had taken full advantage of the Transition Assistance Program. I recommend researching how your military skills and training can translate to those required in the private sector, learning about VA benefits and available services, and preparing financially for your transition to civilian life. Take the time to decide what you really want to do when you make the transition, find out what training or skills are needed, and make a plan to fill in the gaps. You’ve been trained to be tenacious and resilient—use that training to become the best you can be after your service.


Christopher Miller is Director of Content, Hill International. For more information, visit www.hillintl.com.