Marching into a Career with the Military

by Polly Farrimond

August 10, 2021

Serving in the military can provide training, education, and work experience in many different occupations. These occupations all work together to maintain national security. Military members are often in dangerous situations with the risk of serious injury or death. Those deployed to combat zones or those who work in dangerous areas face a higher risk of injury or death. There are five main service branches: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, along with the reservists for each branch and the Air and Army National Guard. The military branches are summarized briefly below, but for more specific information about each branch you should visit their websites.

  • The Army, which is the largest military branch, defends the United States by land, air, and sea. In 2019, the Army employed 479,785 active duty members in 150 different career disciplines, including aviation, information technology, health care, aircraft maintenance, and Special Forces.
  • The Navy keeps the sea safe for travel and trade. It was made up of more than 332,528 active duty personnel in 2019. More than 60 different fields exist for sailors, scientists, artists, aviators, and many more. There are elite groups within the Navy, such as the SEALS and Navy Divers that focus on advanced warfare situations.
  • The Air Force had 327,878 active duty troops that focus on air, space, and cyberspace superiority in 2019. There are 200 potential careers in the Air Force, such as pilots, electronics technicians, air traffic controllers, and medical staff.
  • The Marine Corps is known as the nation’s rapid response force and are the first boots on the ground during most conflicts. Active duty Marines number 186,009 in 2019.
  • The Coast Guard operates under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime and the Navy during wartime or by special presidential order. Coast Guard members protect the United States’ waterways, perform search and rescue, law enforcement, and environmental cleanups. In 2019, 40,830 people served in the Coast Guard.

You can enter the military in a full-time or part-time capacity. Full-time active duty is a similar time commitment to working at a full-time civilian job. Service members who are active duty either live on base or in military housing. Active duty terms typically last two to six years and you can be stationed across the United States or overseas. Hours vary with the person’s occupational specialty, rank, and branch of service, as well as with the needs of the military. Personnel must be prepared to work additional hours to fulfill missions.

Part-time service members attend boot camp, just like full-time active duty service members, but also train one weekend a month and two weeks a year. This allows them to pursue a civilian career or college. Part-time service options fall into two categories: the Reserves or the National Guard. More than 800,000 people serve in the Reserves in these branches and in the Army National Guard and Air National Guard.

Reserves: reservists are part-time service members who maintain trained units at home. Each active duty branch of the military has a reserve component under their command. The reservists are available for active duty deployment in times of war or national emergency.

National Guard: the Army or Air National Guard are part-time service members whose main focus is on homeland security and humanitarian relief. These units assist communities in their state during emergencies like storms, floods, fires, and other national disasters. During times of conflict, the President can federalize the National Guards and the service members can be deployed overseas.

Military Pay and Job Outlook

Pay in the military is based on your current rank and the amount of time you’ve been in the service. The pay structure is the same for all branches of the military. There are opportunities to receive additional pay based on job assignment or qualifications. Members can receive additional pay for foreign, hazardous, submarine duty, flight duty, or for being medical or dental officers. Retirement is typically available after 20 years of service. The full pay structure table can be found here.

In addition to basic pay, military members are either housed free of charge, usually on base, or receive a housing allowance. Military bases usually offer stores and recreation centers. Low cost or free healthcare through Tricare is also provided to full-time members. Other benefits are available after working a certain number of years, including the coverage of some educational costs at accredited institutions, medical care at military or veterans’ hospitals, and guaranteed home loans.

Since the draft ended in 1973, the United States military has been all volunteer. When the economy is doing well and civilian employment opportunities are more favorable, it is typically more difficult for the military to recruit. It’s also more difficult to recruit during times of war, as the potential for being in dangerous situations is much higher. However, during economic downturns, there may be increased competition for military positions. Ultimately, all branches need to fill entry-level and professional positions as current members move up the ranks, leave service, or retire.

To Be Enlisted or To Be an Officer?

If you are interested in military service, a question to consider is whether you would like to enlist or enter as an officer. The fundamental difference between the two is that in order to be an officer you must have a bachelor’s degree.

In order to enlist in the military with a high school diploma or a general education diploma (GED), you must be at least 18 years old. The maximum age to join most military branches is 35, but the Air Force allows entry up to 39 years old and the Navy cuts off entry at 34 years of age. All entrants must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien. When you start the enlistment process, you take the ASVAB test to determine what your job placement will be. Each job and each branch require differing scores. You must also pass a physical fitness test, and some jobs may have stricter requirements. Enlisted service members participate in military operations such as combat or training operations. They operate, maintain, and repair equipment, perform technical and support activities, and supervise junior enlisted personnel.

As of March 2020, there were over one million active duty, enlisted military personnel. The Army had the largest number of enlisted personnel, with 383,022. The three occupational groups with the largest total enlisted personnel were the vehicle and machinery mechanic group (150,797); the engineering, science, and technical group (153,884); and the combat specialty group (137,901).

Engineering, science, and technical personnel operate technical equipment, solve problems, and collect and interpret information. They perform technical tasks in information technology, environmental health and safety, and intelligence. Examples of specific jobs in this group include: environmental health and safety specialists who inspect military facilities and food supplies to ensure they are safe for use and consumption; information technology specialists who manage and maintain computer and network systems; and intelligence specialists who gather information and prepare reports for military planning and operations.

Vehicle and machinery mechanics conduct preventative and corrective maintenance on aircraft, automotive and heavy equipment, and powerhouse station equipment. These workers specialize by the type of equipment they maintain.

Combat specialty personnel train and work in combat units, such as the infantry, artillery, or Special Forces. For example, infantry specialists conduct ground combat operations, armored vehicle specialists operate battle tanks, and seamanship specialists maintain ships. Combat specialty personnel may maneuver against enemy forces and fire artillery, guns, mortars, or missiles to neutralize them. They may also operate various types of combat vehicles, such as amphibious assault vehicles, tanks, or small boats. Members of elite Special Forces teams are trained to perform specialized missions anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.

You can also join the military as an officer, if you have already obtained a college degree. Officers manage enlisted personnel, they plan missions, provide orders, and assign tasks. Officers also operate and command aircrafts, ships, or armored vehicles. If you have a specialized professional degree, you could also be responsible for providing medical, legal, engineering, and other services to military personnel.

As of March 2020, active duty officer personnel numbered more than 240,725. The Army contained the largest number of officer personnel, with over 91,771 employed. The top three occupational groups for officers were combat specialty (33,054); the engineering, science, and technical group (52,013); and the executive, administrative, and managerial group (29,111).

Engineering, science, and technical officers’ responsibilities depend on their area of expertise. They work in scientific and professional occupations, such as atmospheric scientists, meteorologists, physical scientists, biological scientists, social scientists, attorneys, and other types of scientists or professionals. For example, meteorologists in the military may study the weather to assist in planning flight paths for aircraft.

Transportation officers manage and perform activities related to the safe transport of military personnel and equipment by air, ground, and water. They operate and command an aircraft or a ship.

Combat specialty officers plan and direct military operations, oversee combat activities, and serve as combat leaders. They may be in charge of tanks and other armored assault vehicles, artillery systems, special operations, or infantry units. This group also includes naval surface warfare and submarine warfare officers, combat pilots, and aircrews.

Detail on the broad occupational groups found in military service can be found in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Military Careers Occupational Handbook. You can also explore a guided search through specific military careers at Careers in the Military. These sites were the two main sources for this article.



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