Employment: Job Opportunities in the Armed Forces

In 2003, more than 2.5 million people served in the Armed Forces. More than 1.4 million individuals were on active duty in the Armed Forces—about 490,000 in the Army, 377,000 in the Navy, 368,000 in the Air Force, and 179,000 in the Marine Corps. In addition, more than 1.1 million people served in their Reserve components, and the Air and Army National Guard. In addition, 38,000 individuals served in the Coast Guard, which is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Table 1 shows the occupational composition of the 1.2 million active-duty enlisted personnel in 2003; table 2 presents similar information for the 216,000 active-duty officers.

Table 1. Military enlisted personnel by broad occupational category and branch of military service, June 2003

Occupational Group - Enlisted
Army Air Force Coast Guard Marine Corps Navy Total, all services

Administrative occupations

15,175 25,674 1,775 8,642 21,225 72,491

Combat specialty occupations

104,876 253 745 33,070 3,316 142,260

Construction occupations

15,340 6,261   5,145 5,397 32,143

Electronic and electrical repair occupations

14,035 37,155 3,530 16,082 52,094 122,896

Engineering, science, and technical occupations

63,531 43,422 720 35,237 41,003 183,913

Health care occupations

26,660 17,108 685   23,818 68,271

Human resource development occupations

16,202 12,715   6,784 5,510 41,211

Machine operator and precision work occupations

4,528 7,783 2,079 1,710 23,485 39,585

Media and public affairs occupations

4,552 5,921 131 1,556 5,255 17,415

Protective service occupations

24,831 29,516 893 6,086 10,630 71,956

Support services occupations

13,687 1,535 1,213 3,704 11,570 31,709

Transportation and material handling occupations

54,140 33,835 6,423 23,908 39,272 157,578

Vehicle machinery mechanic occupations

48,043 48,433 5,654 18,473 50,266 170,869



Total - by service

405,600 269,611 23,848 160,397 292,841 1,152,297


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Manpower Data Center East

Table 2. Military officer personnel by broad occupational category and branch of service, June 2003

Occupational Group - Officer
Army Air Force Coast Guard Marine Corps Navy Total, all services

Combat specialty occupations

18,306 5,422 2 3,990 5,626 33,346

Engineering, science, and technical occupations

17,368 15,902 1,715 3,044 15,413 53,442

Executive, administrative, and managerial occupations

10,139 9,579 388 2,398 8,234 30,738

Health care occupations

9,775 9,247 10   6,531 25,563

Human resource development occupations

1,369 2,406 247 23 3,807 7,852

Media and public affairs occupations

177 503 15 131 932 1,758

Protective service occupations

2,174 1,838 172 174 855 5,213

Support services occupations

1,500 836   40 1,654 4,030

Transportation occupations

12,612 19,710 3,244 6,258 12,679 54,503



Total - by service

73,420 65,443 5,793 16,058 55,731 216,445


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Manpower Data Center East

Military personnel are stationed throughout the United States and in many countries around the world. More than half of all military jobs are located in California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. About 395,000 individuals were stationed outside the United States in 2002, including those assigned to ships at sea. Approximately 104,000 of these were stationed in Europe, mainly in Germany, and another 85,000 were assigned to East Asia and the Pacific area, mostly in Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Qualifications, Training, and Advancement

Enlisted personnel. In order to join the services, enlisted personnel must sign a legal agreement called an enlistment contract, which usually involves a commitment to 8 years of service. Depending on the terms of the contract, 2 to 6 years are spent on active duty, and the balance is spent in the reserves. The enlistment contract obligates the service to provide the agreed-upon job, rating, pay, cash bonuses for enlistment in certain occupations, medical and other benefits, occupational training, and continuing education. In return, enlisted personnel must serve satisfactorily for the period specified.

Requirements for each service vary, but certain qualifications for enlistment are common to all branches. In order to enlist, one must be between 17 and 35 years old, be a U.S. citizen or an alien holding permanent resident status, not have a felony record, and possess a birth certificate. Applicants who are aged 17 must have the consent of a parent or legal guardian before entering the service. Coast Guard enlisted personnel must enter active duty before their 28th birthday, whereas Marine Corps enlisted personnel must not be over the age of 29. Applicants must both pass a written examination—the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery—and meet certain minimum physical standards, such as height, weight, vision, and overall health. All branches of the Armed Forces require high school graduation or its equivalent for certain enlistment options. In 2003, nearly 9 out of 10 recruits were high school graduates.

People thinking about enlisting in the military should learn as much as they can about military life before making a decision. Doing so is especially important if you are thinking about making the military a career. Speaking to friends and relatives with military experience is a good idea. Find out what the military can offer you and what it will expect in return. Then, talk to a recruiter, who can determine whether you qualify for enlistment, explain the various enlistment options, and tell you which military occupational specialties currently have openings. Bear in mind that the recruiter’s job is to recruit promising applicants into his or her branch of military service, so the information that the recruiter gives you is likely to stress the positive aspects of military life in the branch in which he or she serves.

Ask the recruiter for the branch you have chosen to assess your chances of being accepted for training in the occupation of your choice, or, better still, take the aptitude exam to see how well you score. The military uses this exam as a placement exam, and test scores largely determine an individual’s chances of being accepted into a particular training program. Selection for a particular type of training depends on the needs of the service, your general and technical aptitudes, and your personal preference. Because all prospective recruits are required to take the exam, those who do so before committing themselves to enlist have the advantage of knowing in advance whether they stand a good chance of being accepted for training in a particular specialty. The recruiter can schedule you for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery without any obligation. Many high schools offer the exam as an easy way for students to explore the possibility of a military career, and the test also affords an insight into career areas in which the student has demonstrated aptitudes and interests.

If you decide to join the military, the next step is to pass the physical examination and sign an enlistment contract. Negotiating the contract involves choosing, qualifying for, and agreeing on a number of enlistment options, such as the length of active-duty time, which may vary according to the option. Most active-duty programs have first-term enlistments of 4 years, although there are some 2-, 3-, and 6-year programs. The contract also will state the date of enlistment and other options—for example, bonuses and the types of training to be received. If the service is unable to fulfill any of its obligations under the contract, such as providing a certain kind of training, the contract may become null and void.

All branches of the Armed Services offer a “delayed-entry program” by which an individual can delay entry into active duty for up to 1 year after enlisting. High school students can enlist during their senior year and enter a service after graduation. Others choose this program because the job training they desire is not currently available, but will be within the coming year, or because they need time to arrange their personal affairs.

Women are eligible to enter most military specialties; for example, they may become mechanics, missile maintenance technicians, heavy-equipment operators, and fighter pilots, or they may enter into medical care, administrative support, and intelligence specialties. Generally, only occupations involving direct exposure to combat are excluded.

People planning to apply the skills gained through military training to a civilian career should first determine how good the prospects are for civilian employment in jobs related to the military specialty that interests them. Second, they should know the prerequisites for the related civilian job. Because many civilian occupations require a license, certification, or minimum level of education, it is important to determine whether military training is sufficient for a person to enter the civilian equivalent or, if not, what additional training will be required. Other Handbook statements discuss the job outlook, training requirements, and other aspects of civilian occupations for which military training and experience are helpful. Additional information often can be obtained from school counselors.

Following enlistment, new members of the Armed Forces undergo recruit training, better known as “basic” training. Through courses in military skills and protocol recruit training provides a 6- to 12-week introduction to military life. Days and nights are carefully structured and include rigorous physical exercise designed to improve strength and endurance and build each unit’s cohesion.

Following basic training, most recruits take additional training at technical schools that prepare them for a particular military occupational specialty. The formal training period generally lasts from 10 to 20 weeks, although training for certain occupations—nuclear power plant operator, for example—may take as long as a year. Recruits not assigned to classroom instruction receive on-the-job training at their first duty assignment.

Many service people get college credit for the technical training they receive on duty, which, combined with off-duty courses, can lead to an associate degree through programs in community colleges such as the Community College of the Air Force. In addition to on-duty training, military personnel may choose from a variety of educational programs. Most military installations have tuition assistance programs for people wishing to take courses during off-duty hours. The courses may be correspondence courses or courses in degree programs offered by local colleges or universities. Tuition assistance pays up to 75 percent of college costs. Also available are courses designed to help service personnel earn high school equivalency diplomas. Each branch of the service provides opportunities for full-time study to a limited number of exceptional applicants. Military personnel accepted into these highly competitive programs—in law or medicine, for example—receive full pay, allowances, tuition, and related fees. In return, they must agree to serve an additional amount of time in the service. Other highly selective programs enable enlisted personnel to qualify as commissioned officers through additional military training.

Warrant officers. Warrant officers are technical and tactical leaders who specialize in a specific technical area; for example, Army aviators make up one group of warrant officers. The Army Warrant Officer Corps constitutes less than 5 percent of the total Army. Although the Corps is small in size, its level of responsibility is high. Its members receive extended career opportunities, worldwide leadership assignments, and increased pay and retirement benefits. Selection to attend the Warrant Officer Candidate School is highly competitive and restricted to those with the rank of E5 or higher (table 3.)

Table 3. Military rank and employment for active duty personnel, June 2003

Army Navy & Coast Guard Air Force Marine Corps Total Employment



Commissioned officers:



General Admiral General General 35


Lieutenant General Vice Admiral Lieutenant General Lieutenant General 126


Major General Rear Admiral Upper Major General Major General 282


Brigadier General Rear Admiral Lower Brigadier General Brigadier General 446


Colonel Captain Colonel Colonel 11,884


Lieutenant Colonel Commander Lieutenant Colonel Lieutenant Colonel 28,565


Major Lieutenant Commander Major Major 44,501


Captain Lieutenant Captain Captain 69,184


1st Lieutenant Lieutenant (JG) 1st Lieutenant 1st Lieutenant 29,416


2nd Lieutenant Ensign 2nd Lieutenant 2nd Lieutenant 28,597



Warrant officers:



Chief Warrant Officer Chief Warrant Officer   Chief Warrant Officer 504


Chief Warrant Officer Chief Warrant Officer   Chief Warrant Officer 2,082


Chief Warrant Officer Chief Warrant Officer   Chief Warrant Officer 4,385


Chief Warrant Officer Chief Warrant Officer   Chief Warrant Officer 6,118


Warrant Officer Warrant Officer   Warrant Officer 2,603



Enlisted personnel:



Sergeant Major Master Chief Petty Officer Chief Master Sergeant Sergeant Major 10,869


1st Sergeant/Master Sergeant Senior Chief Petty Officer Senior Master Sergeant Master Sergeant/1st Sergeant 26,545


Sergeant First Class Chief Petty Officer Master Sergeant Gunnery Sergeant 100,002


Staff Sergeant Petty Officer 1st Class Technical Sergeant Staff Sergeant 175,281


Sergeant Petty Officer 2nd Class Staff Sergeant Sergeant 251,122


Corporal/Specialist Petty Officer 3rd Class Senior Airman Corporal 268,606


Private First Class Seaman Airman 1st Class Lance Corporal 218,219


Private Seaman Apprentice Airman Private 1st Class 83,423


Private Seaman Recruit Airman Basic Private 53,211


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Defense

Officers. Officer training in the Armed Forces is provided through the Federal service academies (Military, Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard); the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program offered at many colleges and universities; Officer Candidate School (OCS) or Officer Training School (OTS); the National Guard (State Officer Candidate School programs); the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences; and other programs. All are highly selective and are good options for those wishing to make the military a career. Persons interested in obtaining training through the Federal service academies must be single to enter and graduate, while those seeking training through OCS, OTS, or ROTC need not be single. Single parents with one or more minor dependents are not eligible to become commissioned officers.

Federal service academies provide a 4-year college program leading to a bachelor-of-science degree. Midshipmen or cadets are provided free room and board, tuition, medical and dental care, and a monthly allowance. Graduates receive regular or reserve commissions and have a 5-year active-duty obligation, or more if they are entering flight training.

To become a candidate for appointment as a cadet or midshipman in one of the service academies, applicants are required to obtain a nomination from an authorized source, usually a member of Congress. Candidates do not need to know a member of Congress personally to request a nomination. Nominees must have an academic record of the requisite quality, college aptitude test scores above an established minimum, and recommendations from teachers or school officials; they also must pass a medical examination. Appointments are made from the list of eligible nominees. Appointments to the Coast Guard Academy, however, are based strictly on merit and do not require a nomination.

ROTC programs train students in about 950 Army, approximately 70 Navy and Marine Corps, and around 1,000 Air Force units at participating colleges and universities. Trainees take 2 to 5 hours of military instruction a week, in addition to regular college courses. After graduation, they may serve as officers on active duty for a stipulated period. Some may serve their obligation in the Reserves or National Guard. In the last 2 years of a ROTC program, students receive a monthly allowance while attending school, as well as additional pay for summer training. ROTC scholarships for 2, 3, and 4 years are available on a competitive basis. All scholarships pay for tuition and have allowances for subsistence, textbooks, supplies, and other costs.

College graduates can earn a commission in the Armed Forces through OCS or OTS programs in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and National Guard. These officers generally must serve their obligation on active duty. Those with training in certain health professions may qualify for direct appointment as officers. In the case of persons studying for the health professions, financial assistance and internship opportunities are available from the military in return for specified periods of military service. Prospective medical students can apply to the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, which offers free tuition in a program leading to a doctor-of-medicine (M.D.) degree. In return, graduates must serve for 7 years in either the military or the U.S. Public Health Service. Direct appointments also are available for those qualified to serve in other specialty areas, such as the judge advocate general (legal) or chaplain corps. Flight training is available to commissioned officers in each branch of the Armed Forces. In addition, the Army has a direct enlistment option to become a warrant officer aviator.

Each service has different criteria for promoting personnel. Generally, the first few promotions for both enlisted and officer personnel come easily; subsequent promotions are much more competitive. Criteria for promotion may include time in service and in grade, job performance, a fitness report (supervisor’s recommendation), and the passing of written examinations. People who are passed over for promotion several times generally must leave the military. Table 3 shows the officer, warrant officer, and enlisted ranks by service.