There’s a popular notion that enlisting in the military is limiting; it’s best for people who are prepared to fight in combat or who want to build a career as a military general. But for virtually any job that a private citizen might take, there’s usually an equivalent job in the military, as there are a wide variety of jobs that need to be filled.
Like many people, James McNeil enlisted in the Navy when he was 19 to help pay for college. “I had planned to go to college, but the expense of it became a reality and I realized that I had no trust fund. I had wanted to study photography and I wanted to be able to travel and I didn’t have the money or resources for any of those things. So I looked to the Navy.”
McNeil said that he was “very surprised” by the variety of jobs in the Navy that he could fill. “I think that’s one of the things that people don’t realize. When you think of the military, you think of infantry or working on a flight deck, but there are so many jobs that translate into civilian life that are the same or relatively close. I never thought it was an option, but when I talked to the recruiter, he asked me what I was interested in and I told him photography. And he said, ‘They have that in the Navy; it’s a great job.’”
The job in the Navy that he took was “photographer’s mate.” He worked with journalists and public relations specialists who were employed by the Navy to share information about what was happening in the Navy. “They were officers and members of the military and media was their full time job.” McNeil was stationed on an aircraft carrier that was home to 5,000 people and he worked part-time as a prison guard at the ship’s two-cell jail.
Edgar Navarro joined the Marines when he was “18, right out high school.” In high school, he was always taking apart electronics and putting them back together and installing peoples’ car stereos. In the Marines, he was a sergeant in charge of electronic repairs. “It was an easy fit, understanding and working with the electronic system. I worked mainly on power supplies and radio systems.” After a five-year term in the Marines, Navarro went back to his native Chicago, Ill., where he opened up a cell phone repair business and then opened a second location in nearby Skokie, Ill. He credits the Marines with instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in him: “Not only can they give you a career path, but they teach you how to manage personnel, manage a business, set your own goals — all key elements to being an entrepreneur.”
Train for a civilian career
Steve Yarbrough is a retired Army officer who spent 29 years serving in a variety of assignments and positions in the U.S. and abroad, including a deployment to Iraq. Yarbrough was a “tanker,” commanding a company of 75 soldiers with 14 tanks. “The army is kind of a career within a career based on what you want to do and what you want your life to be. You can be a lawyer or doctor and allow them to help pay for that training, and then equate that into the civilian private sector.”
Yarbrough sees that some young people are “turned off” by the culture of the military. “It’s a very strict culture where you’re being told what to do. But unless they’ve had a parent or family member who has gone through it, most people don’t see the social side of it. You develop a kind of family environment in the military.”
Think about a military college
Dorothy Jones, the director of college counseling at the Bay School, a San Francisco private school, advises several students a year who are interested in ROTC or applying to one of the federal service academies (such as the U.S. Military Academy (www.usma.edu) in West Point, New York or the U.S. Naval Academy (www.usna.edu) in Annapolis, Maryland).
She says that high school students who are accepted to one of the federal service academies “are more likely career military. They do end up having to make a commitment after their college experience. I think many of them end up spending at least a decade with the military.” For students interested in enlisting immediately, she recommends that they take the ASVAP, the military test that qualifies members for certain jobs, multiple times. “They should figure out what they want to do, find out what score they need, and take the exam until they get that score.” She said it’s also important for potential recruits to do as much research as possible and talk to a range of people beyond the recruiters. “The recruiters have a certain role to play in terms of enlisting people,” she says.
Jones herself served in the Army Reserves, which she joined the summer before her senior year of high school. “I was an administrative specialist so I could be put into any organization that needed administrative support. I was part of a reception battalion, so if there was a huge amount of processing that needed to be done, entering new service members into the system, I’d get called in.” Jones served in the Reserves for six years…and had three job offers waiting for her when she was ready to leave. “Having the Army on my resumé and having that training and experience was very attractive to employers. It was a difference maker.”