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is a career in the army a good idea?

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I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about her 18 year old son, who’s just begun the final year of his A-Levels and so will be finishing school in the summer. Apparently, he doesn’t want to go to University and so is thinking about joining the army. Although she’s not very happy about it, my friend is somewhat resigned to the possibility as she doesn’t think that he has much other hope for employment - in the current economic climate, she reckons not many people are employing *just* A-Level students.

I personally not a fan of violence or armed conflict, and I feel no more (or less) proud of British soldiers, sailors and airmen, than I do of our paramedics, firefighters and coastguards. The British armed forces are all volunteer, and most members are young. Generally, under 25. Which, if you think about it, begs the question as to how it’s such a great career move.

Since most members are young, that implies that who join up don’t stay for particularly long. They aren’t in the army, navy or air force for life. Unless they deliberately structure their experience to allow them to get into a good civilian career, they end up in more or less the same position once leaving that they were in when they joined. If they’re unlucky, that’s plus PTSD or another mental illness. If they’re lucky they’ve randomly acquired skills that will help them get a job - but the ability to drive tanks does not translate well into civvy street.

There are of course, plenty of careers open to 18 year olds who are in the top half academically of their age group, and who don’t want to go to University. Like the armed forces, most of these will include more training or education. If you’re looking for something outdoors-y there are careers in areas like telecoms, traffic and roads or utilities which involve site work, and working with both your hands and your brains. There are also jobs in the health service, in local government, finance, the police force, or hospitality for people with a few A-Levels and no degree.

Of course, if you’d like to learn to shoot guns, drive tanks, live in a submarine, or plot bombing raids then a stint in the armed forces is probably the only way that you’ll get to do any of those things as a British citizen. In which case, it’s an excellent idea to enlist. Naturally, I’d hope that people are automatically aware of the downsides - living far from home, people trying to kill you, and shoddy boots - but I’m sure there are a few upsides too.

Joining the army, navy or RAF is not a good career move for the clueless. It’s a fine job if you’re clueless - I’m certain there are plenty of people who will tell you what to do - but it won’t magically translate into a career. If you’re going to go for it then you have to work hard to either create a career within the services, or to create the start of a civilian career within your stint. It’s certainly not the panacea that some people make it out to be.

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18 comments for “is a career in the army a good idea?”

  1. Plonkee, I think this is a wonderful perspective. My military experiences were great - but that’s mostly because I was proactive and made the most out of everything. For me, the military was never designed to be a career. Instead, it was designed to be a life experience, which fortunately, I was able to leverage into achieving a college degree and using my experiences to get a civilian job. I think the military can be a good experience for many people (not everyone) if they are willing to be proactive before, during, and after their service time.

    Posted by Patrick | October 16, 2008, 1:08 pm
  2. Oh, you can definitely make it into a good thing, I think it’s just such a rubbish default option.

    I know a couple of people who joined the army after leaving school and although they both eventually found civilian jobs they enjoyed, their time in the army was just putting off the inevitable career decisions.

    Posted by plonkee | October 16, 2008, 1:17 pm
  3. I think that for young people who are don’t have much direction in their lives, joining the armed forces can be an excellent idea. My cousin was a bit of a drifter and no-hoper after leaving highschool early, and thanks to joining the army is now a helicopter technician, traveling all over the world. It has totally changed his life for the better.

    It’s also a great way to go the university for free (in Oz, anyway, I don’t know about here in the UK), and can lead to a long, exciting career in engineering, etc.

    Posted by FruGal | October 16, 2008, 1:37 pm
  4. SDXB (Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend) came from a working-class family in which young men were expected to get a job fresh out of high school, not go on to college. He worked in an auto body shop, and after a year or so of that decided the prospect of spending the rest of his life in that line of work was more depressing than the prospect of ending his life in Vietnam. So he joined the Air Force.

    He never was sent into combat. Instead, he ended up going into journalism. Once out of the military, he began a career as a multi-award-winning investigative journalist and was able to support his wife as a SAHM and both his parents after his father became disabled with early-onset Parkinson’s. He stayed in the active-duty reserves as a device to support his own early retirement. Today he has a good pension and complete medical coverage, plus all the benefits available to retired military.

    This works only if you can engineer a career path that will give you skills that work in the real world. And alas, in the military you often have no control over what you will be assigned to do.

    Posted by Funny about Money | October 16, 2008, 1:57 pm
  5. I tend to agree. Though I would rarely actually say so. I would probably be chased with sticks by my fellow Americans and considered completely unpatriotic.

    I do know people who were directionless after high school and went into the Armed Services (my husband being one of them), and it was a good thing for them. They eventually found good careers. However, I also know people who have come out of the military and are still directionless, traumatized after being in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are having a hard time adapting to civilian life.

    Posted by Kristen | October 16, 2008, 3:07 pm
  6. I think it’s the idea that being in the armed forces automatically provides direction that I have the biggest problem with.

    Sure you can use it to generate opportunities (and people in the military should), but there are also a bunch of alternatives, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into a good job in the real world.

    Posted by plonkee | October 16, 2008, 3:24 pm
  7. The military is about service to your country, not about giving discipline to someone with no other ambition. Sometimes, with a lot of luck it works out for the best, but it’s a hard road just to learn a few life skills that your parents should have taught you at home. For that matter, no job should teach you basic like skills like waking up and going to work.

    Posted by Zella | October 16, 2008, 10:05 pm
  8. Career in the army is always a good idea but I did not get a chance, otherwise I would be in the army now.

    Posted by Financial Planners | October 17, 2008, 7:04 am
  9. Zella, in a perfect world I’m sure everyone would come from a home where they are given all the skills they need to succeed in life. Unfortunately that’s not the case, and a lot of people need the discipline of the armed forces in order to make something of themselves. And if they are serving their country at the same time, surely that’s a good thing.

    Posted by FruGal | October 17, 2008, 8:36 am
  10. FruGal: I know, but coming from a family where military = career, I resent the “get in, learn life skills, get out” thinking that a lot of people seem to feel is the only real benefit to the military. When I considered the military, I considered it as a career-path choice, not as a temporary thing to give me a little time before I got a “real” job or whatever the alternative is.

    Oh, and I hate teaching basic life skills to post-college kids in their first jobs too, so I’m definitely equal-opportunity on this one :) I like being a manager for the coaching part, not the parenting part :)

    Posted by Zella | October 17, 2008, 12:11 pm
  11. I think it’s a great idea to start in the Armed Services, one, that it provides discipline, which is a cornerstone of wealth. And to be able to have the Government pay your way through school (in the US, its the MGI bill) is an added bonus to being exposed to a lot of on the job training.
    I joined the Marines, thinking that it would help me be a brain surgeon, but I really should have been in the Navy for that. Still, being in the military is a good option for starting a career, and if someone turns into a “lifer”, then it’s a win-win for them.

    Posted by stocks | October 19, 2008, 3:32 am
  12. I suppose one can say the same thing about college/university. For that matter, going into anything clueless is either a really bad idea or a really good idea. If I had waited until I knew exactly what I was doing before I did something, I’d never have done anything.

    I think it’s a lot to expect an 18-yr-old to have a career plan. I also think the military is not the worst option for figuring it out. One can learn a lot in the military, including whether or not someone is suited for it.

    Posted by deepali | October 21, 2008, 9:08 pm
  13. I am a pacifist so I would never consider or recommend the armed forces as it would go against my core values and beliefs. I also take issue with the obedience, do-as-you’re-told, ours-not-to-reason-why aspect of the military. I think directionless non-academic young people should consider careers in the trades, e.g. electrician, plumber, etc.

    Posted by Canadian | October 22, 2008, 12:12 pm
  14. I don’t completely disagree with you on the point about the army not being a great career, although for the right person it definitely can be.
    I do however take issue at the idea of the army not being a good choice for the clueless.
    You make the point that when someone leaves the army, “If they’re lucky they’ve randomly acquired skills that will help them get a job - but the ability to drive tanks does not translate well into civvy street.”
    Certainly tank driving is not top of the list of desired skills for potential employers but how about leadership, teamwork, discipline, perseverence, to mention a few skills that are key when it comes to employability and success?

    Without sounding like an old man (I’m a 23 year old graduate) these skills are far greater than those of most school, and even university, leavers today. I believe some sort of service for young people would make for a much better country all round.

    Posted by Stuart | October 25, 2008, 7:41 pm
  15. I won’t be making much of an objection if my children choose a military career. The Army does take care of its own.

    Great training, discipline, and like Stuart said, teamwork, perseverance etc.

    So far none of my children have indicated any interest, but who knows.

    Posted by fathersez | November 3, 2008, 6:50 am
  16. i been thinkin about joinin the armed forces

    Posted by Rocky | April 11, 2010, 8:54 pm
  17. Im thinking of joining the army, along with a number of my friends.

    Posted by Jonathan | November 4, 2010, 8:42 pm

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