The Unsung Hero of Social Mobility

While politicos and pundits debate the state of social and economic mobility in America, one overlooked organization is doing heroic work to lift its more than 2 million workers into the middle class and promote human flourishing. Hiring most of its employees right out of high school, this organization provides extensive skills training, college and graduate school tuition subsidies, complete health care and dental benefits, defined contribution and benefit retirement plans, and high wages. Additionally, it offers its workers world-class development in non-cognitive skills such as conscientiousness, perseverance, and teamwork. Its employees are among the best at problem-solving and performing under pressure, and society greatly respects their contributions. This company goes by many names, but most know it as the United States military.

Few companies or educational institutions in America can compete with this institution’s catalytic effect on upward mobility. As the employer of 1.4 million full-time service members and another 800,000 part-time, the armed forces should be recognized nationally as a dynamic institution increasing access to the American Dreams. Despite the benefits of the military for young adults, the U.S. Army fell short of its hiring goal by 25 percent, or almost 15,000 soldiers, in 2022, and the other services barely met their needs for recruits. Concerns that new military members are increasingly from military and veteran families and concentrated in the South, the Southwest, rural areas, and the regions surrounding military bases suggest the military’s recruitment efforts are missing eligible young men and women across the nation who could benefit the most from the social and economic opportunities offered by military service. Policymakers and policy influencers interested in accelerating the upward mobility of young Americans can make a positive impact by understanding how the military can benefit disadvantaged youth and determining ways to extend those opportunities to a broader audience.

When people imagine military work, they tend to focus on traditional combat roles like infantry, submarines, and nuclear operations. However, the U.S. military employs personnel in almost every career specialty one might find in the private sector, including trades, medical, transportation, and information technology. And unlike the civilian sector, no previous experience is expected or required to gain employment in any of these career specialties. The U.S. military takes on the responsibility of teaching its service members the necessary technical skills by sending them to training and trade schools and then putting them to work immediately to continue learning on the job. Service members advance quickly from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman and eventually into supervisor positions where they learn to manage and lead others.

Before any service members begin to learn their specialty, all of them, officers and enlisted, attend basic military training, or what is affectionately known as “boot camp.” Military experience begins with acculturation as the services bring young men and women with different dialects, religious beliefs, and family backgrounds together in one place for six to twelve weeks. Here, they learn their military branches’ norms, values, and behaviors by completing challenging and stressful training. Recruits and officer candidates practice overcoming individual differences, paying attention to essential details, and developing grit to get the job done, regardless of how difficult the circumstances become.

While basic military training is the foundational experience that creates a common bond across all military service members, it is not the last. As soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians, and marines progress through their careers, they attend additional courses and training on how to be instructors and leaders of teams and organizations. The military continually develops service members through every level of career progression, honing their skills and ensuring each individual is ready to face the challenges of the future.

Popular narratives lead people to believe that military salaries are less competitive than those in the private sector. However, while the military grows human capital— technical knowledge, leadership skills, and experience—that enhances marketability once individuals leave the service and enter the labor market, a military career pays a competitive salary, too. Although comparing pay and compensation between military and civilian careers is notoriously tricky as most combat specializations in the armed forces do not have equivalent functions in the private sector, it is possible. A 2020 Congressional Research Service report on military pay found that, on average, military officers’ compensation is in the 83rd percentile compared to their civilian peers of similar education and experience. Enlisted personnel, those who typically enter the military without college degrees, earned at the 90th percentile compared to similarly educated and experienced workers.

Based on rank and years of service, the bulk of a service member’s compensation, military basic pay, is transparent and predictable. Some additional pay, like special duty pay for hazardous occupations and local market-based housing pay, creates minor compensation differences between military personnel. Still, for the most part, wages are egalitarian. Eschewing traditional corporate incentives like annual bonuses for short-term performance, the military instead rewards its members for longevity and commitment with a retirement benefit that exceeds even some of the most generous private sector offerings.

Utilizing a retirement system that includes defined contributions and benefits, the military matches its members’ contributions to their retirement accounts up to five percent of their salary. And those who complete 20 years of service earn a pension immediately upon retirement and comprehensive health care coverage for life. For example, a member who enlisted in the Air Force at age 18 and retired 20 years later at the grade of E-7 (Master Sergeant)would earn an annual pension of nearly $33,000. In this scenario, the 38-year-old veteran would also have plenty of opportunity to have a second, and perhaps a third, career while earning their pension. Although most service members leave the military before they vest a pension, the time in service still has a positive effect on longer-run outcomes, especially for underrepresented Americans who experience wage gaps in the civil sector.

A recently published paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics finds that for Black veterans who served any tour length, the Army has a long and beneficial effect that increases their access to better-paying jobs and almost entirely closes the Black-White earnings gap. The benefits of military service extend beyond purely financial considerations; service members flourish across several other key social indicators: housing, education, marriage, and family.

The financial benefits don’t end at competitive pay. Military members and veterans can also access favorable mortgage terms through the Veterans Administration (VA). This program guarantees home loans, relieving service members and veterans from needing to post large down payments or purchase private mortgage insurance. The Quarterly Journal of Economics paper finds that compared to their peers, Black veterans have higher rates of home ownership and live in higher-income neighborhoods.

Additionally, as it pertains to education, the post-9/11 GI Bill grants military members and veterans an education benefit that pays full tuition, housing, and books to attain a degree at a state-run college or university. Service members can transfer all or part of this benefit to their spouse or children and access other tuition assistance benefits to take college and graduate school classes while on active duty.

Military members marry at higher rates but divorce no more frequently, on average, than their civilian peers. Finally, just this year, the Department of Defense implemented a flexible 12-week parental leave policy allowing military members to use the time off immediately or spread it out through the first year of their child’s birth or qualifying adoption.

While the merits of a full or partial military career are numerous and of particular benefit to young Americans desiring to climb into the middle class, it is always worth considering the personal costs of this path before jumping in. While direct combat is a reality for only a small portion of the force, most will deploy overseas to support military operations for as little as a few weeks or months up to a year or more. Additionally, service members can expect to travel away from home for training, have on-call, night, and weekend duties, and move every few years. Many military occupations are hazardous, by definition, so musculoskeletal injuries are common among service members. Finally, the moral decision to participate in war is also an aspect of the military profession that individuals must consider. But for those willing to assume these hardships and risks in favor of service in the armed forces, a short tour or a long career can produce lasting social and economic benefits for them and their families.

Politicians and policymakers serious about creating opportunities for young Americans can focus on preserving and protecting military service as part of a broader mobility policy. Congress sets pay and benefits for military service members and has the unique responsibility to ensure that compensation levels are high enough to attract new people to join the military while not consuming too much of the defense budget. But generous benefits or a new incentive to serve only makes a difference in the military’s recruitment efforts if eligible youth are kept informed so they can weigh the cost and benefits of a military path against other alternatives. As attractive as the military may be for those looking to fast-track their lives, young adults will only raise their hand to volunteer for these opportunities if they know about them.

Legislative and executive branch officials at all levels of government can help expose young Americans to the opportunities of military service by ensuring recruiters have access to all high schools that receive public support through direct funding or implicit tax exemptions. Congress can provide the funding and mandate to expand recruiting beyond traditional strongholds and into underserved areas the military services previously abandoned for efficiency reasons. Congress can also strengthen and broaden high-school programs like Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and Civil Air Patrol’s Cadet Program that provide civic leadership development and information about the armed forces.

Additionally, policymakers and researchers should examine the eligibility criteria used by military services to screen out potential candidates. Pointing toward high rates of obesity, low rates of high school completion, criminal histories, and an overabundance of health issues, a 2018 report commissioned by a group of retired military officers estimated that only 23 percent of American youth are eligible to enlist. But these criteria deserve continual public scrutiny, as many military enlistment standards are often based on historical practices and assumptions, not facts and evidence. For example, women were not allowed to serve in combat arms specialties until 2016, and only by order of the Secretary of Defense, which left this entire population ineligible for many jobs until the ban was lifted. Researchers and policymakers should scrutinize the military’s disqualifying criteria and look for interventions to help marginal candidates improve their chances of completing military training and thriving in the armed forces.

The U.S. military is one of the few institutions in America that can legitimately claim to be an engine for social and economic mobility. Most of its entrants do not possess college degrees, nor are they required to pay for expensive occupational training and licenses. Instead, the military takes on the fiscal responsibility of training its own. However, like other overly broad policies, such as “college for all” and cheap credit, military service is not a universal solution for helping everyone into the middle class. Most Americans are not suited for the profession of arms, and each service is limited on how many people it can accept. For eligible Americans, the structure of the military’s financial and non-monetary compensation and its post-service benefits make it an attractive pathway for attaining the American Dream and flourishing as capable citizens, whether they serve for three years or 30. Policymakers, researchers, and advocates can help most by illuminating the military option for all young men and women while applying rigor and reason to the military’s eligibility policies.

Tobias Switzer
Tobias Switzer
Tobias Bernard Switzer is an active-duty colonel in the United States Air Force and an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. A special operations helicopter pilot, economist, and foreign area officer, he has served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. His work on military labor markets and other defense issues has been published in Econometrica, War on the Rocks, the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and USA Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.
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