A career in the Armed Forces is a great way to serve the United States of America in one of its five active duty military branches – Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. Depending on the job selected, working can be akin to most civilian jobs – Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. However, other positions are more volatile, unpredictable, and adventuresome.

The following guide will help interested individuals explore potential career paths by providing a high-level overview of the Armed Forces, including a look at different roles, related skills, earning potential, and employment outlook.

Career Paths in the Armed Forces

Serving in the Armed Forces has always been a popular career option. The reasons for joining are as varied as the individuals themselves. Many serve to be part of something larger than themselves and to do what they feel is their patriotic duty. Others do it for the higher education financial aid benefits, such as the Student Loan Repayment program, Post 9/11 GI Bill, Tuition Assistance and Tuition Top-Up. Still others want to be on the cutting edge of technology or pursue something that is challenging and life-changing.

Career paths can include serving at various grade levels: Commissioned Officer, Warrant Officer or Enlisted. Within each level are several fields and numerous jobs within those fields. Below is a sampling of some of the jobs available:

Army Automobile Maintenance Warrant Officer (915A)

This position is similar to a civilian Shop Foreman found in most automobile dealerships or large repair shops. In charge of a shop, the Maintenance Technician supervises a variety of technician specialists ensuring all aspects of equipment maintenance are performed to the military standard, including equipment recovery, repair parts ordering and stock-age, body and hull repair, welding, electronics, armament, production control and quality control. While the position is normally located on a post in a fixed facility (a building), it can also become mobile and provide support from a field environment. The grade of this position can be from a Warrant Officer 1 (WO1) to a Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CW4).

Education

No post-secondary education is required, however, the candidate must be an Enlisted E-5 or above with at least 5 years on the job in one of a variety of MOS positions. Also required is a letter of recommendation from a Senior Warrant Officer in the same field.

Air Force Pilot

Of those who set out to become a pilot, few actually make it, but for those who do, they are the best of the best and are well on their way to having one of the most exciting careers in the military.

Air Force pilots fly either fixed wing, such as bomber, fighter, tanker or cargo planes, or rotary wing (helicopter) aircraft. Some positions require pilots to also be Instructor Qualified, so they can refresh the skills of other pilots through periodic qualification flights.

Potential pilots must first pass a Class I Flying Physical, pass rigorous testing and complete an Officer Commissioning course through a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, Branch Officer School or the Air Force Academy. In most cases, commissioning must occur before one’s 29th birthday and in flight school by his or her 30th birthday. The Navy and Marines also employ pilots.

Education

At least a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 3.4 or higher preferably in one of the sciences, such as aerospace engineering, physics, computer science or chemistry.

Navy Flight Support

This field has both officer and enlisted positions. Aviation Maintenance Duty Officers (AMDO) are Flight Support Supervisors who are responsible to ensure aircraft maintenance is performed correctly, provide operational support, and manage all material and manpower required so aircraft can fly.

Enlisted members work under the supervision of an AMDO and are responsible for maintaining and operating aircraft catapult systems, along with ensuring landing gears, brakes and related systems work on some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. Work is normally performed on the flight deck under varied weather and environmental conditions.

Flight Support is a critical position to ensure mission success. If planes on an aircraft carrier can’t fly, that carrier can’t project its military power from the air.

Education

As an officer, a four-year degree is required. As an enlisted, no post-secondary education is required.

Marine Corps Military Police

While all military branches have their own police, the ones in the Marines are some of the most active and well trained of all the branches. Under peacetime conditions, Marine policing activities are very similar to their civilian counterparts.

Typical duties include military law enforcement, traffic control, security, crime prevention, intelligence gathering, and patrolling. Some Marine Corps Military Police pursue specialized training and go on to become dog handlers, which are used to sniff out explosives, drugs, and find people.

This job is usually performed on a base; however, military police and dog handlers frequently deploy to combat zones. This usually ramps up the activity and danger levels by presenting new policing challenges. Unlike civilian police officers, Marine Corps Military Police also serve as resettlement and interment officials.

Education

As an Enlisted, no post-secondary education is required; however, an ASVAB GT score of 100 or higher is required and non-waiver able. Also, candidates must be able to obtain a Secret security clearance.

Coast Guard Boatswain Mate (BM)

If there is a jack-of-all-trades in regard to seamanship, a BM is it. Individuals in this position must be able to do everything. From supervising deck maintenance, to small boat operations, navigation, and search and rescue (just to name a few), BMs are always there. They also have to know how to operate hoists, cranes, and winches and know how much of a load a rope or cable can safely support. A Boatswain Mate is a unique position in that they can become an officer-in-charge of a harbor tug, patrol boat, or cutter. Most Coast Guard personnel are stationed within the confines of the United States and its territorial waters.

Education

While no post-secondary education is necessary, small boat handling experience is desirable along with an aptitude in algebra, geometry, and shop.

Navy Nurse Corp

Depending on the type of nurse (there are 15 types available), being a Navy Nurse is similar in nature to its civilian counterpart. For example, navy nurses check vitals, treat wounds, and manage triage. However, navy nurses can also be deployed and found administering infant vaccinations in developing countries, taking part in humanitarian relief efforts, or providing emergency care to natural disaster victims – tasks that are not normally found in civilian nursing.

Job location can be in one of 250 medical facilities around the globe and could range from working aboard ship, in a naval hospital or clinic on a base, or in one of the three National Navy Medical Centers – Bethesda, MD, Portsmouth, VA or San Diego, CA. There is even opportunity to provide support to the Marines.

Education

Nurses must be a graduate of an accredited nursing school, however, can enlist without having graduated yet. If already enrolled in a nursing program, students get an initial grant and a monthly stipend for up to 24 months to help pay for school under the Nurse Candidate Program (NCP). If just starting college, students can get a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship worth up to $180,000 to pay for nursing school.

Army Linguist

Linguists are in high demand. So high that the Army pays up to $40,000 in an enlistment incentive and up to an additional $400 per month once trained in one of the following languages: Arabic Egyptian, Arabic Levantine, Chinese Mandarin, Persian Farsi, Arabic Modern Standard, and Pashto.

Linguists fall into two general categories: Strategic and Tactical. Strategic Linguists work out of an office translating highly classified documents and information while Tactical Linguists work in a field environment talking to the local population, all the while gathering information. To apply, applicants must be able to obtain a Top Secret security clearance. After serving a career in the Armed Forces, an individual could work for the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency or Homeland Security.

Education

While no post-secondary education is necessary, foreign language skills are desirable or at least a high aptitude to learn a foreign language, which is determined by the Defense Language Aptitude Battery Test.

Navy Operations Specialists

Most OS positions are located at sea aboard ships, which means much time will be spent away from home. However with specialized training, some operations specialists function as combat air controllers and work aboard aircraft.

The job usually consists of working in the combat information centers or combat direction centers on a ship’s bridge. Typically they operate radar, navigation and communications equipment, along with detecting and tracking other ships, aircraft and missiles.

When underway, the job can be stressful and intense requiring quick thinking, the ability to make calculations on the fly, and to quickly determine the relevance to the mission of the massive amounts of information coming in.

Education

While no post-secondary education is necessary, arithmetic, record keeping, working with computers and manual dexterity are desirable skills to have. Applicants must also be able to obtain a security clearance.

Armed Forces Salaries

Pay in the military differs from the civilian sector in that the earnings depend on rank, years of service, and location. For example, an E-5 with over three years of service earns $2,464.50 per month in Base Pay, but the same E-5 with over six years in the Armed Forces earns $2,761.80.

By comparison, an O-3 officer with those same years of service would earn $4,787.10 and $5,469.60, respectively. Warrant Officers Basic Pay falls in between the enlisted and officer.

In addition, certain military members also get a Basic Housing Allowance (BAH), which is determined in part by location and rank. The table below shows a sample comparison between an E-5 and O-3 BAH at three Army posts in the U.S., along with a total for both Base Pay and BAH (with and without dependents):

Ft. Drum, NY

$1,476/$2,088 E-5/O-3 With Dependents
$1,206/$1,605 E-5/O-3 Without Dependents
$3,940.50/$6,875.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH With Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)
$3,670.50/$6,392.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH Without Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)

Ft Riley, KS

$1,215/$1,674 E-5/O-3 With Dependents
$1,005/$1,377 E-5/O-3 Without Dependents
$3,679.50/$6,461.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH With Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)
$3,469.50/$6,164.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH Without Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)

Ft. Irwin, CA

$1,086/$1,416 E-5/O-3 With Dependents
$813/$1,203 E-5/O-3 Without Dependents
$3,550.50/$6,203.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH With Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)
$3,277.50/$5,990.10 E-5/O-3 Base Pay and BAH Without Dependents (Over 3 Years, But Less Than 6 of Service)

Source: Defense Travel Management Office

Besides Base Pay and BAH, military members also get certain allowances, such as clothing or separation (if stationed away from their family). They may also get an incentive pay depending on their job, location, and other criteria, such as stationed-at-sea, serving in a combat zone, flight pay, submarine pay, etc.

Components of a Successful Career in the Armed Forces: Skills, Tools, and Technology

Skills

Because the jobs in the military vary so greatly (there are over a 150 career paths in the Army alone), it is hard to nail down the skills needed. However, there are certain personal skills that are valuable regardless of the branch, path, or job. Such skills include:

Stamina and physical fitness

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown military members must be in top physical and mental shape to endure the rigors of deployment. Service members who were overweight and less in shape suffered higher rates of injuries. Because Armed Forces service is stressful – both physically and mentally – members at the top of their game stay in longer.

Team Player

The military relies the team concept to get its work down. By working together, a team gets more done than if each member worked alone. That is why one of the first things learned in Basic Training is teamwork.

Patriotism

Whether an enlisted or officer, defending the Constitution without question is paramount to success as a military careerist. As a result, an Oath of Allegiance is required.

Adaptability

Things can change fast in the military and you have to be able to “roll with the punches”. Today you may be in one place and tomorrow on a plane to somewhere else. Being able to quickly adapt to changes – and challenges – on the fly is critical to both mission and personal success.

Empathy

The military operates in all types of environments – some of which are hostile and unhealthy – usually in developing areas of the world. It is necessary to be able to relate to the local socio-economic background, race, culture and religions. For many, it is a way to survive.

In addition to the above skills, credentialing is a license or certification that shows the individual has the training and experience to perform a certain job in the civilian sector. Currently, there are over 105 jobs that can be credentialed in the Army alone. Credentialing is commonly found in the healthcare field, such as an x-ray technician, dental assistant, or Physician’s Assistant (PA). But it can also validate one’s expertise in operating commercial vehicles, thus making it easier to get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) when transferring to the civilian sector. Working in a nuclear plant control room or having a computer-specific certification from a vendor, such as Cicso or Microsoft, are two other types of credentials that are valuable in the civilian world but can be obtained through military service depending on the job.

Some credentials are nationally recognized while others may only be specific to a State or Territory. Credentialing certain military skills not only saves time and money, but can also be a benefit when trying to get a civilian job after leaving a military career.

Tools and Technology

From vehicles, weapons, computers, planes, and everything in between, the Armed Forces are first in many cases to develop, test, and refine equipment and technology that is cutting edge, state-of-the-art, and not found anywhere else in the world.

The military has many opportunities not found in the civilian sector. For instance, how many businesses use tanks in their line of work? And, depending on the specific Armed Forces role, civilian careers utilize many tools and technologies that first started out as new technology in the military.

Take Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for example. The military has been using the Predator and Shadow drones for years. Drones overhead in Iraq and Afghanistan were (and still are) flown from here in the United States.

From that technology, we now have small drones that are being used for everything, from photographers taking low altitude photos of a house for a realtor, to Amazon using drones and GPS to deliver packages.

Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook in the Armed Forces

With the war in Iraq ended and the drawdown continuing in Afghanistan, the Armed Forces are becoming smaller by design and out of budget necessity. As shown below, the total number of active duty military personnel has been steadily declining:

Number of Active Duty Military Personnel Year
1,520,100 2011
1,492,200 2012
1,433,150 2013

The need for new service members won’t be as great in the near term (2015 out to 2020) as it has been in the last decade. But with ISIS still strong, and other threats still developing, there still will be a need to meet strength goals and to make up for attrition due to service members getting out or retiring.

According to the latest data available, below is a look at how the Armed Services looks now and what it is projected to look like in the next five years:

U.S. Armed Forces Strength by Branch

Military Branch Current (2015) Projected (2020) Notes
Army 490,000 450,000 Special Forces is planned to grow by 3,000 to 69,700
Air Force 315,000 315,000 Smallest it has been since it was created in 1947
Navy 325,000 328,000 The only branch slated as a whole to grow
Marines 190,000 182,000 Could go down to 175,000, if sequestered

* Note: Numbers do not include 335,000 National Guard or 195,000 Reserve members.

As shown above, the branch with the most overall opportunity for growth is the Navy. The other branches are projected to shrink as a whole. Within the Army, the Special Forces is projected to grow as they have shown they are best suited for the type of combat actions encountered now and currently projected for the near-term.

What Do Related Occupations Make?

While some of the jobs in the Armed Forces are unique and not found in the civilian sector, many do crossover. As the chart below illustrates, the annual salary of three sample military jobs – Pilot, Mechanical Engineer and Electrician – fall around the median salary point when compared to their related civilian equivalents. Nurse and Truck Driver are closer to the Top 10 percent.

The above figures for the first three positions uses an officer O-3 with over 6 years as a standard for Base Pay and an average BAH. For the last two, an enlisted E-6 with over 6 years is used as the standard.

Related Occupations: What You Need to Know

Serving a career in the Armed Forces can be a great way to learn a skill or trade that can then be used to get a job after retiring from military service. With the education benefits available to all service members – Tuition Assistance and Tuition Top-Up – it can be easy to get a postsecondary education all the way up to a four-year college degree while serving. One could also go back to school after military retirement and use the GI Bill for an advanced degree.

Here is a sampling of jobs in the Armed Forces that directly convert to the civilian sector, along with information on median salary, growth potential, and the education or training required by most companies to compete for these positions.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics