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Spring 2007 Vol. 51, Number 1

Military training for civilian careers
(Or: How to gain practical experience while serving your country)

The inaugural Occupational Outlook Handbook provided
career guidance for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Harking back to those origins, this article highlights the
career value of military service.

by C. Hall Dillon


 

Choosing and joining a branch

Deciding to pursue career training in the U.S. Armed Forces is the first of many steps to becoming a soldier, airman, sailor, Marine, or Coast Guardsman. There is also the decision about which branch to join. The armed services’ five branches have a lot in common, but each has its own purpose. You’ll need to learn what distinguishes each branch and whether it provides the kinds of opportunities you seek.

Do your research, take a few tests, and you might be ready to sign on the duty-bound line.

Doing your homework

To learn about the armed services and the types of jobs they offer, get input from several sources. Study written material, watch video presentations, and talk to recruiters, family, and friends. Then, analyze the facts you’ve gathered to make an informed decision.

A good starting point is to look at each branch of service separately. Knowing more about what each does can help you to narrow your occupational focus.

Branches. The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fall under the U.S. Department of Defense. They provide the military forces needed to conduct or deter war and protect the Nation’s security. The Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has a primarily domestic role in enforcing maritime law and safety.

The Army is the largest of the five branches, with about 488,000 officers and enlisted soldiers on active duty. These personnel defend U.S. land and interests through ground-based operations in dozens of countries.

The Air Force, originally created as a ground-support corps of the Army, has roughly 347,000 active-duty personnel. They defend the Nation from the air and from space, operating and controlling aircraft, satellites, and missiles.

The role of the Navy is to maintain freedom of the seas. In addition to enabling trade and travel for the United States and its allies, a strong navy can use the oceans during times of conflict. About 342,000 active-duty Navy personnel serve on ships, submarines, aircraft, and bases around the world.

The Marine Corps, part of the Department of the Navy, is the only branch of the armed services with air-, land-, and sea-based expeditionary fighting capabilities. Marines, who number around 178,000 on active duty, are trained to deploy quickly into situations ranging from peacekeeping to combat; they also guard U.S. embassies worldwide.

During peacetime, the Coast Guard focuses on maritime rescue, safety, law enforcement, and border control. In times of conflict, the President—the Commander in Chief—can transfer all or some of the 38,000 active-duty members of the Coast Guard to the Department of the Navy.

Remember, there is some overlap between the branches’ functions. The Air Force might seem an obvious choice for jobs related to airplanes, for example, but all five branches have aircraft-related occupations. Thoroughly investigate your options if you want to train for a particular job.

Research. Military recruitment information exists in many forms: posters and brochures, Web-based videos and written materials, and radio and television spots. But information also comes from talking with other people, including current and former military personnel and recruiters for each of the branches.

Some information for making comparisons is easy to find. For example, each branch provides details about its education benefits and eligibility requirements. You can compare those details to help you decide which branch to join—or not join.

When evaluating the materials you read, see, or hear, however, keep in mind that their purpose is to promote the armed services. You might find the occupational profiles for one branch appealing, but don’t be too quick to disregard the other branches in the beginning.

A major part of your decisionmaking process should involve talking to others. Current and former servicemembers can tell you about their active-duty job, which is especially helpful if it’s the type of work you’d like to do. But remember that each person’s military experience, positive or negative, is filtered through a different prism.

This advice can also come from recruiters, whose job is to tell you about the military in general and their branches in particular. Get the facts you need by asking specific questions about the occupational options in each branch, especially if you have a certain job in mind. Recruiters can also provide information about details such as signing bonuses, length of basic training, specifics about leave and medical care, conditions of living quarters, and details of education benefits.

For balance, talk to more than one recruiter from each branch. Be informed enough to ask specifically about topics, such as options for joining the Reserves, that the recruiter might not mention otherwise. And trust your instincts. Be wary of any recruiter who you feel avoids directly responding to your questions.

The flipside to asking questions, of course, is listening to the answers. Consider bringing along a friend or family member to sit in on the session with you. Afterward, you can compare notes. Be aware, though, that the recruiter might ask personal questions. Make sure you don’t mind that the person accompanying you will hear your answers to those questions.

Signing up

So, you’ve settled on the kind of job you’re most interested in and the branch of service you want to join. Now all you need to do is to put the two together and sign a contract, right? Not exactly.

The U.S. Armed Forces first need to evaluate your readiness to enter the military, your work interests, and your skills in math, verbal, science, and technical subjects. Then, they compare that information with their personnel needs to determine what job you’ll be trained to do. The type of occupational specialty you get may depend on the length of your enlistment and the availability of jobs.

Prequalifying. When you meet with a recruiter, he or she probably will ask you a few questions to make sure you qualify for military service. Prospective servicemembers usually must meet the following requirements:

  • U.S. citizenship or permanent residency;

  • High school diploma or equivalent;

  • Good health and drug free;

  • Between the ages of 17 and 35; and

  • Committed no felonies.

In addition, each branch may have specific requirements for job specialties.

Next, your interests and abilities will be assessed. Many students take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), offered at thousands of high schools nationwide, during their junior or senior year. This test is designed to help students identify their career-related aptitudes.

If you haven’t already taken the ASVAB or need to take it again, you’ll take a short version of it for prequalification purposes. Later, you’ll take the complete version. Your score will be used to determine whether you qualify for armed-services enlistment—and, if so, in what kind of job.

Visiting a MEPS. Meeting the basic requirements means you’ll visit a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). The MEPS is a joint-service organization run by the U.S. Department of Defense. Military applicants complete the ASVAB (if needed), medical tests, paperwork, and other procedures before taking the oath of enlistment.

The ASVAB, as mentioned previously, measures aptitude in a broad range of career fields. Your score will largely determine which occupations you qualify for. Subject areas tested include word knowledge, arithmetic reasoning, general science, mechanical comprehension, and electronics information. Each branch of the military establishes a minimum ASVAB score for enlistees, and each branch has rules about retaking it.

The medical exam includes height and weight measurements, hearing and vision tests, muscle group and joint maneuvers, and other exams. You also will be asked to complete a medical-history questionnaire.

If you meet the requirements for the branch of service you’ve selected, you’ll learn about job opportunities. You might discover that the occupation you had hoped to train for does not have any available slots—and that one you have little interest in pursuing is wide open. What are your options?

Under the Delayed Entry Program, you might be able to wait until the job you want becomes available. But delayed entry isn’t a given. If you really want to join the military, be prepared to train for an occupation you might never have considered. Incentives, usually in the form of enlistment bonuses, may be offered to those willing to accept assignment in hard-to-fill jobs.

Until you sign a service contract, though, you can still walk away. Once you sign a contract, you’re obligated for at least 8 years of service—either active or reserve, but an obligation nonetheless—and you can’t leave, even if you don’t like it. So be sure you understand the terms of that commitment before you make it.

Your final steps in enlisting include an interview, fingerprinting for a background check, and taking an oath. Congratulations! You’ve just bought yourself a ticket to basic training.

 

 

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007