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Infowire: Is the military a good choice for kids unsure about college?

Apr 28, 2015

This is part of an Infowire series about choices for young people who want to be successful but aren’t seeing that path through college, or in some cases, even traditional high school education. 

Battle Creek Fire Captain Michael Fleisher says before signing a military contract, recruits should think hard about the job they want to do in the military and once they get out.
Credit Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Higher education increases a young person’s chances of being successful. But college can’t guarantee success, and there will always be young people who would like to make a choice other than higher education.

Eighteen-year-old Adam Theisen is one of them. “School isn’t really my thing,” he says. “A lot of people say 'well, maybe you can just go to community college and get your grades up and go to a university.' I don't want to do that.”

Theisen will graduate from high school in Monroe this spring. In September, he leaves for basic training in South Carolina. Before he enlisted he talked to a lot of people who served or thought about serving. His advice: “Don’t make any assumptions. Talk to a lot of people," he says, "and don’t always trust a recruiter 100%. It’s not like they’re lying to you but they can’t guarantee anything.”

  Safety is chief among the things a recruiter can’t guarantee, of course. The number of stories about difficulties service members face on active duty, or as veterans once they come home, makes it impossible to ignore the risk. Theisen isn’t choosing the military to be practical. He deeply wants to serve.

Some young people are looking towards the military as an alternative to college, or maybe a pathway toward it. Theisen doesn’t think that’s a good enough reason. “You have to want to do it,” he says. “You can't just want to do it to get college paid for."

Does the military equal job security?

The military does make more economic sense now than it did even a few decades ago. Not because the military has changed much, but because the economy has. 

·         For students who aren’t doing well in college or don’t go to a highly selective school, the benefits of college just aren’t as great.

·         There are close to 1 million young people who have given up looking for work and aren’t in college either.

·         Youth unemployment rates have started to drop, but for people under 25 they’re still much higher than they are for older workers. The rate for 17- and 18-year-olds is about 17%.

The military isn’t a cash cow for its recruits. Staff Sargent Jacob Smith is an Army recruiter in Jackson, Michigan. He says the benefits package for recruits to the military is valued at about $18,000, and includes food, housing and medical care. He says a recruit’s annual income should be around $18,000 more.

Barring injury or dismissal, the military can guarantee a job for active duty military. If recruits want to move back into the civilian work force once they leave the armed forces, it helps to pick a career route early.

Choose a career in the military the same way you would choose a university.

Michael Fleisher is a fire captain for the city of Battle Creek. He says he didn’t think much about joining the Air Force before he did it. His family didn’t have money for him to go to college and they pushed him towards the military.

He was very careful about choosing the job (called an MOS) he would do during his service, and he made sure the contract he, and everyone gets when they join up, listed the job he actually wanted. He joined the firefighting service. That’s his biggest piece of advice for new recruits, to be careful choosing an MOS.

If you don’t, he says, “Whatever’s open they’ll just stick you in there. It’s pretty important to get that contract.”

All recruits sign a contract when they enter the military and that contract lists a job. Every branch of the military handles these jobs differently. Reddit is a good place to ask questions and join discussions of these differences, but a word to the wise: Nothing on that site is verified, so always double-check that what you’re reading is true.    

Even though Fleisher likes how his life and career turned out, he’s pushing his three kids towards college. “If they do decide to join the military I’ll be with them all the way.”

He’s not talking about moral support. “I would obviously go into the meetings with the recruiter, make sure everything is specific.”

Recruiters also say it’s a good idea to have that kind of support from a parent, a relative, or a mentor; somebody who can ask questions and help make such an important decision. It also helps to have support if you’ve got your heart set on going into the military and you don’t get in, which happens a lot.

If you choose the military, it doesn’t mean you’ll get in.

The military has fewer spots to fill now, and can be picky about who they choose to fill them.

Smith, the Army recruiter, says he really wants to help anybody who wants to join up – that’s his job – but there are some bright lines that will disqualify people.

·         There’s always a physical exam, so being out of shape or having a medical problem might disqualify you.

·         You have to be a citizen, have a green card, or be a “Dreamer,” meaning that you’re undocumented but were brought to the United States as a child.

·         No drugs! The military will work with people who have juvenile records, even some who have criminal records, but Smith says any conviction for drug possession, or even possession of drug paraphernalia is something he and other recruiters can’t work with.

·         You don’t have to have graduated from high school to join, you can join with a GED. Smith says there are often fewer spots for hopefuls with GED’s.

·         Anybody trying to get into the military has to pass a test to get into the military called the ASVAB. “We turn away an easy five times as many people that don’t pass the test, as the ones that can and get enlisted,” says Smith.

That failure rate might seem surprising, but it does track with Michigan's public school performance. On the state's test, only around 20% of Michigan's high schoolers score proficient in math and science.

The Army has free prep courses to help students prepare for their test, and the Army lets recruits take the test several times. Smith does tutoring for the test, in part because it’s what he likes to do. When he leaves the military, he wants to be a teacher.

Adjusting to the military choice and the lifestyle

Fire Captain Michael Fleisher says he remembers the hardest part of the adjustment to life in the military was not the physical demands or the discipline. For him, it was the realization that the military literally owns its service members. When Fleisher was stationed in Arizona, he remembers some soldiers getting disciplined for “destruction of military property,” because they allowed themselves to get sunburned.

Even Adam Theisen, the hopeful Marine, has some concerns. "I’m concerned about what might happen to me after the military,” he says.

Adam’s mom, Karen Theisen, feels that way too. Her worries take center stage. She is supportive of Adam, but would have liked if he'd chosen college instead of the military.

“My concerns are that Adam will come out of the military not the same person,” she says.

Sargent Smith, the Army recruiter, acknowledges the risk and the adjustment, but he trusts the young people joining up know what they’re doing. “This is a big decision,” he says. “But it’s a decision they are fully capable of making.”

Send story ideas or comments our way at infowire@michiganradio.org