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Military Career, Salary and Education Information
What They Do
Members of the U.S. military service maintain the U.S. national defense. Although some service members work in occupations specific to the military, such as fighter pilots or infantrymen, many work in occupations that also exist in the civilian workplace, such as nurses, doctors, and lawyers. Members serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, or in the Reserve components of these branches, and in the Air National Guard and Army National Guard. (The Coast Guard, which is included in this profile, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.)
Duties of the military
The military distinguishes between enlisted and officer careers. Enlisted personnel make up about 82 percent of the Armed Forces and carry out military operations. The remaining 18 percent are officers—military leaders who manage operations and enlisted personnel. About 8 percent of officers are warrant officers, who are technical and tactical experts in a specific area. Army aviators, for example, make up one group of warrant officers.
Enlisted personnel typically do the following:
- Participate in, or support, military operations, such as combat or training operations, or humanitarian or disaster relief
- Operate, maintain, and repair equipment
- Perform technical and support activities
- Supervise junior enlisted personnel
Officers typically do the following:
- Plan, organize, and lead troops and activities in military operations
- Manage enlisted personnel
- Operate and command aircraft, ships, or armored vehicles
- Provide medical, legal, engineering, and other services to military personnel
Types of Enlisted Personnel
The following are examples of types of occupations for enlisted personnel:
Administrative personnel maintain information on personnel, equipment, funds, and other military-related activities. They work in support areas, such as finance, accounting, legal affairs, maintenance, supply, and transportation.
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.
Construction personnel build or repair buildings, airfields, bridges, and other structures. They also may operate heavy equipment, such as bulldozers or cranes. They work with engineers and other building specialists as part of military construction teams. Some construction personnel specialize in an area such as plumbing, electrical wiring, or water purification.
Electronic and electrical equipment repair personnel maintain and repair electronic equipment used by the military. Repairers specialize in an area such as aircraft electrical systems, computers, optical equipment, communications, or weapons systems. For example, weapons electronic maintenance technicians maintain and repair electronic components and systems that help locate targets and help aim and fire weapons.
Engineering, science, and technical personnel perform a variety of tasks, such as operating technical equipment, solving problems, and collecting and interpreting information. They perform technical tasks in information technology, environmental health and safety, or intelligence:
- Environmental health and safety specialists inspect military facilities and food supplies to ensure that they are safe for use and consumption.
- Information technology specialists manage and maintain computer and network systems.
- Intelligence specialists gather information and prepare reports for military planning and operations.
Healthcare personnel provide medical services to military personnel and their family members. They may work as part of a patient-service team with doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals. Some specialize in providing emergency medical treatment in combat or remote areas. Others specialize in laboratory testing of tissue and blood samples; maintaining pharmacy supplies or patients’ records; assisting with dental procedures; operating diagnostic tools, such as x-ray and ultrasound machines; or other healthcare tasks.
Human resources development personnel recruit qualified people into the military, place them in suitable occupations, and provide training programs:
- Personnel specialists maintain information about military personnel and their training, job assignments, promotions, and health.
- Recruiting specialists provide information about military careers; explain pay, benefits, and military life; and recruit individuals into the military.
- Training specialists and instructors teach military personnel how to perform their jobs.
Machine operator and repair personnel operate industrial equipment and machinery to make and repair parts for a variety of equipment and structures. They may operate engines, nuclear reactors, or water pumps, usually performing a specific job. Welders and metalworkers, for example, work with various types of metals to repair or form the structural parts of ships, buildings, or equipment. Survival equipment specialists inspect, maintain, and repair survival equipment, such as parachutes and aircraft life-support equipment.
Media and public affairs personnel prepare and present information about military activities to the military and the public. They take photographs, make video programs, present news and music programs, or conduct interviews.
Protective service personnel enforce military laws and regulations and provide emergency responses to disasters:
- Firefighters prevent and extinguish fires in buildings, on aircraft, and aboard ships.
- Military police responsibilities include controlling traffic, preventing crime, and responding to emergencies.
- Other law enforcement and security specialists investigate crimes committed on military property and guard inmates in military correctional facilities.
Support service personnel provide services that support the morale and well-being of military personnel and their families:
- Food service specialists prepare food in dining halls, hospitals, and ships.
- Religious program specialists assist chaplains with religious services, religious education programs, and related administrative duties.
Transportation and material-handling personnel transport military personnel and cargo. Most personnel within this occupational group are classified according to the mode of transportation, such as aircraft, motor vehicle, or ship:
- Aircrew members operate equipment on aircraft.
- Cargo specialists load and unload military supplies, using forklifts and cranes.
- Quartermasters and boat operators navigate and pilot many types of small watercraft, including tugboats, gunboats, and barges.
- Vehicle drivers operate various military vehicles, including fuel or water tank trucks.
Vehicle and machinery mechanical personnel conduct preventive and corrective maintenance on aircraft, automotive and heavy equipment, and powerhouse station equipment. These workers specialize by the type of equipment that they maintain:
- Aircraft mechanics inspect and service various types of aircraft.
- Automotive and heavy-equipment mechanics maintain and repair vehicles, such as Humvees, trucks, tanks, and other combat vehicles. They also repair bulldozers and other construction equipment.
- Heating and cooling mechanics install and repair air-conditioning, refrigeration, and heating equipment.
- Marine engine mechanics repair and maintain engines on ships, boats, and other watercraft.
- Powerhouse mechanics install, maintain, and repair electrical and mechanical equipment in power-generating stations.
Table 1. Active duty enlisted personnel by broad occupational group and branch of military, and Coast Guard, February 2017
Types of Officers
The following are examples of types of officers:
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.
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.
Executive, administrative, and managerial officers manage administrative functions in the Armed Forces, such as human resources management, training, personnel, information, police, or other support services. Officers who oversee military bands are included in this category.
Healthcare officers provide medical services to military personnel in order to maintain or improve their health and physical readiness. Officers such as physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and dentists examine, diagnose, and treat patients. Other healthcare officers provide therapy, rehabilitative treatment, and additional healthcare for patients:
- Dentists treat diseases, disorders, and injuries of the mouth.
- Nurses provide and coordinate patient care in military hospitals and clinics.
- Optometrists treat vision problems and prescribe glasses, contact lenses, or medications.
- Pharmacists purchase, store, and dispense drugs and medicines.
- Physical therapists and occupational therapists plan and administer therapy to help patients adjust to injuries, regain independence, and return to work.
- Physicians, surgeons, and physician assistants examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment to military and their families.
- Psychologists provide mental healthcare and also may conduct research on behavior and emotions.
Human resource development officers manage recruitment, placement, and training programs in the military:
- Personnel managers direct and oversee military personnel functions, such as job assignments, staff promotions, and career counseling.
- Recruiting managers direct and oversee recruiting personnel and recruiting activities.
- Training and education directors identify training needs and develop and manage educational programs.
Media and public affairs officers oversee the development, production, and presentation of information or events for the military and the public. They manage the production of videos and television and radio broadcasts that are used for training, news, and entertainment. Some plan, develop, and direct the activities of military bands. Public affairs officers respond to public inquiries about military activities and prepare news releases.
Protective service officers are responsible for the safety and protection of individuals and property on military bases and vessels. Emergency management officers plan and prepare for all types of disasters. They develop warning, evacuation, and response procedures in preparation for disasters. Law enforcement and security officers enforce all applicable laws on military bases and oversee investigations of crimes.
Support services officers manage military activities in key functional areas, such as logistics, transportation, and supply. They may oversee the transportation and distribution of materials by ground vehicles, aircraft, or ships. They also direct food service facilities and other support activities. Purchasing and contracting managers negotiate and monitor contracts for equipment, supplies, and services that the military buys from the private sector.
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:
- Navigators use radar, radio, and other navigation equipment to determine their position and plan their route of travel.
- Pilots in the military fly various types of military airplanes and helicopters to carry troops and equipment.
- Ships’ engineers direct engineering departments, including engine operations, maintenance, and power generation, aboard ships.
Table 2. Active duty officer personnel by broad occupational group and branch of military, and Coast Guard, February 2017
Work Environment for military
In February 2017, more than 2.1 million people served in the Armed Forces. More than 1.3 million were on active duty, including the following subtotals:
Air Force: 322,799
In addition, about 810,000 people served in the Reserves in these branches and in the Air National Guard and Army National Guard. In February 2017, about 40,795 people served in the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The specific work environments and conditions pertaining to military occupations depend on the occupational specialty, unit, branch of service, and other factors. Most active-duty military personnel live and work on or near military bases and facilities throughout the United States and the world. These bases and facilities usually offer housing and amenities, such as stores and recreation centers.
Service members move regularly for training or job assignments, with most rotations lasting 2 to 4 years. Some are deployed internationally to defend U.S. national interests.
Military members must be both physically and mentally fit, and ready to participate in, or support, combat missions that may be difficult and dangerous and involve long periods away from family. Some personnel, however, are rarely deployed near combat areas.
Table 3. Military rank and employment for activity duty personnel, (excluding Coast Guard), February 2017
Members of the military are often placed in dangerous situations with the risk of serious injury or death. Members deployed to combat zones or those who work in dangerous areas, such as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, face a higher risk of injury or death.
Military personnel on active duty typically work full time. However, 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.
How to Become a Member of the Armed Forces
To join the military, applicants must meet age, education, aptitude, physical, and character requirements. These requirements vary by branch of service and for officers and enlisted members.
Although entry requirements for each service vary, certain qualifications for enlistment are common to all branches:
- Minimum of 17 years of age
- U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status
- Have a high school diploma or equivalent
- Never convicted of a felony
- Able to pass a medical exam
Applicants who are 17 years old must have the consent of a parent or legal guardian before entering the military.
Age limits for entering active-duty service are as follows:
- In the Army, the maximum age is 34.
- In the Navy, the maximum age is 34.
- In the Marine Corps, the maximum age is 29.
- In the Air Force, the maximum age is 39.
- In the Coast Guard, the maximum age is 27.
All applicants must meet certain physical requirements for height, weight, vision, and overall health. Officers must be U.S. citizens. Officers and some enlisted members must be able to obtain a security clearance. Candidates interested in becoming officers through training in the federal service academies must be unmarried and without dependents.
Service members are assigned an occupational specialty based on their aptitude, previous training, and the needs of their branch of service. All members must sign a contract and commit to a minimum term of service.
A recruiter can help a prospective service member determine whether he or she qualifies for enlistment or as an officer. A recruiter can also explain the various enlistment options and describe the military occupational specialties.
Women are now eligible to enter all military specialties.
Become an enlisted member
Prospective recruits who wish to enlist must take a placement exam called the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is used to determine an applicant’s suitability for military occupational specialties.
A recruiter can schedule applicants to take the ASVAB without any obligation to join the military. Many high schools offer the exam as a way for students to explore the possibility of a military career. The selection for a certain job specialty is based on ASVAB test results, the physical requirements for the job, and the needs of the service.
Applicants who decide to join the military must pass the physical examination before signing an enlistment contract. The contract involves a number of enlistment options, such as the length of active-duty or reserve-duty time, the length and kind of job training, and the amount of bonuses that may be earned, if any. Most active-duty programs have first-term enlistments of 4 years, although there are some 2-, 3-, and 6-year programs.
All branches of the Armed Services offer a delayed-entry program allowing candidates to postpone entry to active duty for up to one year after enlisting. High school students can enlist during their senior year and enter service after graduation. Others may delay entry because their desired job training is not immediately available or because they need time to arrange their personal affairs.
Become an officer
To become an officer, candidates typically need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, be a U.S. citizen, pass a background check, and meet physical and age requirements. Candidates for officer positions do not need to take the ASVAB. Some achieve officer candidacy by completing a degree and training through the federal service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine) or through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs offered at many colleges and universities.
All branches of the Armed Forces require their members to be high school graduates or have equivalent credentials. Officers usually need a bachelor’s degree. Some officers entering the service may need to have education beyond a bachelor’s degree. For example, officers entering as military lawyers need a law degree.
Those who want to become an officer have several options to meet the education requirements, including the aforementioned federal service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine), the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, Officer Candidate School (OCS), and other programs.
Leadership skills. Members of the Armed Forces work together to achieve their missions. Those who want to advance ranks need to be able lead others in the completion of assigned duties or missions.
Mental preparedness. Members of the Armed Forces must be mentally fit and able to handle stressful situations that can occur during military operations.
Physical fitness. Members of the Armed Forces must be physically fit to participate in, or support, combat missions that may be difficult or dangerous.
Readiness. Members of the Armed Forces must be ready and able to report for military assignments on short notice.
Training for enlisted personnel. Newly enlisted members of the Armed Forces undergo initial-entry training, better known as basic training or boot camp. Basic training includes courses in military skills and protocols and lasts 7 to 13 weeks, including a week of orientation and introduction to military life. Basic training also includes weapons training, team building, and rigorous physical exercise designed to improve strength and endurance.
Following basic training, enlisted members attend technical schools for additional training that prepares them for a particular military occupational specialty. This formal training period generally lasts from 10 to 20 weeks. Training for certain occupations—nuclear power plant operator, for example—may take as long as a year. In addition to getting technical instruction, military members receive on-the-job training at their first duty assignment.
Training for warrant officers. All services except the U.S. Air Force have warrant officer programs. Selection to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School is highly competitive and is restricted to those who meet rank and length-of-service requirements. The only exception is the selection process for Army aviator warrant officers, a process that has no requirement of previous military service. Training may last several weeks.
Training for officers. Officer training in the Armed Forces is provided through the federal service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine), the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, Officer Candidate School (OCS) or Officer Training School (OTS), the National Guard (State Officer Candidate School programs), and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
- Training for officers in the federal service academies. The federal service academies provide a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree. Midshipmen and cadets receive free room and board, free tuition, free medical and dental care, and a monthly allowance. Graduates receive regular or reserve commissions and typically have a 5-year active-duty obligation, which may be longer for some specialties, such as medicine or aviation. Service academy cadet or midshipman candidates must be nominated by an authorized source, usually a member of Congress. In addition, nominees must submit their academic record, college aptitude test scores, and recommendations from teachers or other school officials. They must also pass a medical examination and have no dependents. Academies make appointments from the list of eligible nominees. Appointments to the Coast Guard Academy, however, are based on merit and do not require a nomination.
- Training for officers in ROTC programs. Participants in ROTC programs take regular college courses along with 3 to 5 hours of military instruction per week. After graduation, they may serve as officers on active duty or in the Reserves or National Guard. In the last 2 years of an 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 of school are available on a competitive basis.
- Training for officers through OCS or OTS. College graduates can earn a commission in the Armed Forces through OCS or OTS training programs in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and Army National Guard. These programs consist of several weeks of academic, physical, and leadership training. Those who complete the programs as officers must usually complete their service obligation on active duty.
- Training for officers through the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Personnel with training in certain health occupations may qualify for direct appointment as officers. For those studying 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 the Health Sciences, which offers a salary and free tuition in a program leading to a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. In return, graduates must serve for at least 7 years in either the military or the U.S. Public Health Service.
- Training for officers through direct appointments. Direct appointments are also available for those qualified to serve in other specialty areas, such as the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for those in the legal field or the Chaplain Corps for those in religious ministry. All prospective officers who enter the service through a direct appointment attend several weeks of military-related training that typically includes courses in military orientation, academic subjects, and officer leadership and tactics.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Depending on the occupational specialty, members of the military may need to have and maintain civilian licenses or certifications. For example, officers serving as lawyers, also known as judge advocates, may need to have and maintain their state bar licenses to enter and remain in the U.S. military.
Each branch of the military has different criteria for determining the promotion of personnel. Criteria for promotion may include time in service and in grade, job performance, a fitness report, and passing scores on written exams. Enlisted personnel can be promoted to higher ranks, which may include serving in a supervisory position and being in charge of junior enlisted members.
Each military service may have other advancement opportunities for its enlisted personnel. For example, enlisted personnel may become warrant officers if they complete a bachelor’s degree, have several years of experience in higher enlisted positions, and meet age and physical requirements. The Army offers a direct enlistment option to become a warrant officer aviator.
Officers can also be promoted to higher ranks, which may include the command of a military unit of both enlisted members and officers, or being in charge of an entire military base.
Basic pay is based on rank and time in service. The pay structure for military personnel is shown in table 4. Pay bands are the same for all branches. Members of the Armed Forces may receive additional pay based on their job assignment or qualifications. For example, they receive additional pay for foreign, hazardous, submarine, or flight duty, or for being medical or dental officers. Retirement pay is generally available after 20 years of service.
Table 4. Monthly pay by military rank and years of service, January 2018, (O-officers, W-warrant officers, E-enlisted members)
In addition to receiving basic pay, members of the military are either housed free of charge on base or they receive a housing allowance.
Members who serve for a certain number of years may receive other benefits. These benefits may include educational benefits through the Montgomery GI Bill, which pays for a portion of educational costs at accredited institutions; medical care at military or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals; and guaranteed home loans.
Military personnel on active duty typically work full time. However, 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.
Job Outlook for MILITARY
BLS employment projections cover the civilian workforce only.
The goal of the Armed Forces is to maintain a force sufficient to deter, fight, and overcome various threats or conflicts in multiple regions at the same time. Emerging conflicts and global events, however, could lead to changes in the size of the military branches. Consequently, the nation is expected to maintain adequate personnel in the Reserve, Army National Guard, and Air National Guard.
Opportunities should be very good for qualified individuals in all branches of the Armed Forces through 2026. All services have needs to fill entry-level and professional positions as current members of the Armed Forces move up through the ranks, leave the service, or retire.
The military has been an all-volunteer force since the end of the draft in 1973. When the economy is thriving and civilian employment opportunities are generally more favorable, it is more difficult for the military to meet its recruitment quotas. It is also more difficult to meet these goals during times of war, when recruitment goals typically rise. During economic downturns, candidates for military service may face competition.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Military Careers, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/military/military-careers.htm