Cover: Navigating a Big Transition

Navigating a Big Transition

Military Service Members' Earnings and Employment After Active-Duty Service

Published Nov 10, 2021

by Charles A. Goldman, Jeremy Boback, Robert Bozick, Drew M. Anderson

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Research Questions

  1. Which military occupations are associated with higher rates of employment and higher levels of earnings after service? How does that relationship develop over time post-separation?
  2. What individual characteristics of service members are associated with labor market success?
  3. How does service members' income after service compare with their active-duty income?

Improving enlisted service member transitions from active duty to civilian life calls for better information about how service members fare in their transitions. The authors examined the relationship among enlisted service members' military occupations, personal characteristics, and civilian employment outcomes over the first three years after separation from active duty. They used detailed empirical analysis of more than 1 million service records, matched to employment and earnings after separation. The data encompass all separations from the armed forces from 2002 through 2010.

Earnings varied markedly in relation to the former service member's military occupation. Individuals who worked in intelligence and information systems consistently appeared in the high tier of post-service earnings. Those who worked in combat arms, medical, supply, and transportation were generally in the moderate or low tier of post-service earnings. These gaps point to military occupations that might need additional support to develop marketable skills, either during the whole of service members' military careers or around the time of transition.

Higher levels of education achieved at the time of separation were associated with greater earnings after separation. Separations after poor conduct or substance abuse were associated with lower earnings. Deployment during service had mixed association with post-service earnings, depending on service, gender, and length of service.

Service members in most military occupations had lower earnings after leaving the service compared with their final year of active duty. This finding emphasizes the importance of building marketable skills for service members and supporting their transitions into the civilian labor force.

Key Findings

  • Post-service earnings were frequently lower than active-duty earnings, showing that transition support is generally needed.
  • Civilian earnings varied widely across service members transitioning from different military occupations.
  • Intelligence and information systems Military Occupational Codes (MOCs) consistently appeared in the high tier of first-year earnings after separation across all four services.
  • Combat arms, medical, supply, and transportation MOCs were generally in the moderate or low tier of first-year earnings after separation; these occupations could benefit from targeted support.
  • Earnings grew on average from the first to second to third years after separation, with the relative gap between MOCs narrowing somewhat.
  • Individuals with higher levels of education and more favorable separation codes had higher earnings after separation.

This research was sponsored by Force Education and Training within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (Readiness) and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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