Ex-military in step with middle class
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
TESS VIGELAND: Counseling is a way to achieve financial security. But at one time military service itself represented financial security. About half of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II parlayed their active duty into a middle-class life. But is that still true today?
David Segal teaches military sociology at the University of Maryland.
Professor Segal, first, how is the current economy affecting how people look at military service?
DAVID SEGAL: Since the advent of the all-volunteer force, economic distress in American society is good for military recruiting. When unemployment goes up, youth unemployment goes up particularly rapidly, unemployment goes up particularly rapidly in minority youth communities, and that’s good for recruiting. On the retention side, I’ve seen at least three surveys that asked people who were re-enlisting why they are staying in. And one of the major reasons is job security.
VIGELAND: We think of the post-World-War-II era as a time that the middle class really grew by leaps and bounds in America. What role did the military play in that?
SEGAL: The military actually played a role for people who did not have access to other means of moving into the middle class. Particularly for African Americans. Initially, for men. But certainly since the advent of the all-volunteer force, for African America women as well. It has provided a form of employment, job training, higher education and, for many of them, a career.
VIGELAND: You mentioned higher education. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the GI Bill?
SEGAL: There have been lots of GI Bills, or lots of forms of support for higher education linked to the military. The function of the GI Bill, when it was first passed was, in an altruistic sense, to reward soldiers for their service. And in a labor-force-management sense to prevent all of the demobilized GI’s from flooding the labor market at the same time at the point where there weren’t jobs available to them. When we instituted the volunteer force, people who remembered the GI Bill as being a tool of recruitment said, “Well, gee, we don’t have to do that anymore. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s don’t give educational benefits. The military doesn’t have to, either. It took some time for the military to realize that, for the quality personnel they were trying to get, they were really competing with colleges and universities to get people who do make better soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
VIGELAND: What about life after they leave the military? You know, recruiters commonly say that the skills that are learned in the military, that’s just what employers are looking for in a potential candidate. Is that true? Do employers really look at this experience as something they can use?
SEGAL: Officers tend to have a fairly easy task of finding subsequent employment. In part, because most career officers, somewhere in the course of their careers, pick up a graduate degree at government expense. Or, they have had leadership experiences that civilian industry finds useful. Enlisted personnel, my sense is don’t do badly but don’t seem to get as much credit for the job skills that they have learned in the military.
VIGELAND: So, can we still call the military a gateway to the middle class. And, if so, for whom?
SEGAL: To a large extent, it is a gateway to the middle class for those who stay in for a career. Because they move up the positions where they have responsibility, they have authority, they have basically a middle-class lifestyle. Particularly for people from disadvantaged communities, whether it’s economically disadvantaged rural communities, or whether it’s racial and ethnic minorities, they can get places where they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
VIGELAND: David Segal is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. Thanks so much for your time.
SEGAL: It was good talking to you, Tess.
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