The Military Service Member and Veteran’s Guide to HR Management Degrees and Career Opportunities

guide to hr management

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Wars can be won or lost for many different reasons. One easy way to lose one, though, is by going into action with troops that aren’t trained, aren’t motivated, and aren’t supported.

The American military has recognized this reality ever since the 1970s, when it made the transition to an all-volunteer force. And that, in turn, has led to a serious, scientific focus on human resources management.

You can read something into the fact that administration is ranked as S-1 in the military staffing system that’s been used since the time of Napoleon.

Today, every branch of the service has HR specialists dedicated to managing key parts of military staffing and preparation:

The training and day-to-day experience you will receive in these roles is the perfect preparation for earning a degree and building a career in human resources in the civilian world.

Explore Your Military Training and Degree Options

HR Management Helps Any Organization Elevate Its Game

job applicants waiting in chairsOf course, as long as people have organized together in large groups to accomplish any kind of goal, there has been some version of human resources working to keep them aligned and motivated. Whether it was churning out Model Ts or taking San Juan Hill, personnel managers were needed to keep it together.

As the Industrial Revolution charged forward, though, innovators and businessmen realized that managing human resources was really its own unique specialty. Studies of workplace efficiency and safety emerged and showed the importance of well-trained experts to manage the workforce.

Today, HR handles hiring, firing, training, promotions, labor negotiations, violations and complaints, and many other tasks. Just about anything that relates to staffing is going to fall into the HR basket. That’s a big field, and it takes training in both general HR principles and in issues specific to different industries to truly master it.

Human Resources Salaries Reflect the Importance of the Field

looking at applicants virtuallyHR professionals are found in almost every kind of business in every industry. Companies need HR if they are going through an expansion and hiring sprees; they need HR if they are downsizing and having to let staff go. It’s an all-weather career, and the salaries reflect the demand.

For HR managers, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary was $126,230 per year. Those in the top ten percent of the profession, though, with the most experience and the most advanced degrees, can make more than $208,000 annually.

If you are starting off your career a little lower on the food chain as an HR specialist, the median salary is going to be closer to $62,290 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But HR manager isn’t the only job that a human resources management degree can qualify you for. Particularly if you have on-the-job experience in one of these other specializations through your military service, you can also end up working as a:

Even better, you will have had a chance to get your feet wet in one or more of these areas in the service.

Military Human Resources Consists of More Than Two-Million Personnel Worldwide

soldiers at duskThe military has always had a keen eye on what’s happening in relevant civilian industries, so HR evolved in the armed forces just as it was in American industry. When World War II rolled around, the roles reversed.

In 1940, the Selective Training and Service Act was passed requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for the draft. By the end of the war, 50 million had registered and 10 million had been inducted. Adding those to more than 6 million more who joined up voluntarily created an unprecedented challenge in training, assigning, and keeping records.

The military personnel system in every branch continues to handle such tasks today.

Human Resources Specialists Get On-the-Job Experience in Critical HR Tasks

Not every service calls their human resources personnel by that name, though. Instead, you will find them in each service in the following military occupational specialties (MOS) or career groups:

Military human resources officers and specialists are the service members who are responsible for determining, assigning, and administering all military occupational specialties (MOS).

Just like out in the civilian world, these roles also have various specializations. You can end up working specifically in HR areas such as:

And, of course, the longer you stay in and further you advance in rank, the more likely you are to also build up management and leadership skills in your unit.

Training for Military Personnel Roles Offers a Preview of Civilian HR Work

soldier signing contractMost HR billets come with between five and nine weeks of specialized training after your complete basic. You’ll attend dedicated military training schools, such as the Navy’s Class A technical school in Meridian, Mississippi, or one of several Army Adjutant General Schools at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

For the Marines and Coast Guard, administrative and yeoman duties are more general positions—they can be assigned to any kind of administrative work. That makes the initial training more generic, but you will still be taught whatever specialized HR skills you need if you are being posted to a personnel administration role.

Like any niche you find in civilian industries, military HR has its own unique requirements, terminology, and standards. Most of your training will be aimed straight at mastering those intricacies and unusual scenarios, like processing permanent change of station orders and filling in forms preparing troops for discharge.

But if you take a step back, you’ll realize you are basically learning the same kind of processes that civilian companies use—they hire and fire just like the military recruits and discharges. The forms are different, and the legal requirements will shift, but the patterns will be similar. And that’s a big advantage as you go on to look for degree programs and jobs in human resources outside the military.

Advanced Training in Managing Military Personnel Is on Par With Any Civilian HR Education

naval recruitYou can pick up a few other advantages while you are still in the service as an HR specialist, too. The longer you are in or the more heavily you specialize in a particular HR area, the more likely you are to get sent to a more advanced training course, like the Adjutant General Advanced Leader Course in the Army.

There are also in-service benefit programs like Military Tuition Assistance that can help you pay for college courses that you might take on your own time. A few introductory classes in accounting or other business foundations taken on the military’s credit card can often shorten your degree program after the service, and better equip you to move on to more advanced studies.

These can also help you get into a civilian-facing HR mindset. After all, military motivational counseling can differ quite a bit from civilian performance incentives.

Credentialing Opportunities On-Line Offers HR Certification as a Military Benefit

The DoD offers another program that can ease your transfer into the world of civilian HR from any service. You need to get the approval of your chain of command to tap into it, but COOL, the Credential Opportunities On-Line system, offers you a wide array of industry-standard certification related to your MOS that you can purse while still on active duty.

These can include important HR certs like:

On top of helping you identify the relevant certs, the program can also contribute up to $4,000 toward certification or licensing costs, including coursework and testing fees that may be required.

Degrees in Human Resources Polish Your Military HR Experience

teamwork and technologyIt turns out that successful businesses have come to pretty much the same conclusion as the military—having motivated, well-trained, well-supported staff is the key to success.

Fostering the kind of leadership and support structures that make that possible isn’t a skill you pull out of a hat, though. Human resources degree programs solve the hard problems of educating HR staff in problem-solving and critical-thinking skills aimed at attracting the right employees and getting them what they need to succeed.

College degrees that train HR professionals are available at every level. While the overall thrust may be the same, you’ll find there are many differences depending on what kind of degree program you pursue.

Associate Degrees in Human Resource Management

A two-year associate degree comes with about 60 credits of instruction that will be split between basic core HR curriculum and general studies requirements like English, social studies, sciences, and history. This is a good combination to prepare you for many entry-level staff jobs in HR management, and it can often serve as a transfer degree that can be accepted as the first two years of a bachelor’s program if you choose to proceed to that level.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Human Resource Management

A full bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete and goes much deeper into both HR and traditional liberal arts education. At this level, you’ll start to find more specializations opening up. You also can go broad, taking electives in many different areas to get a sense of what you want to specialize in. A bachelor’s degree is considered the essential level of college for any managerial position in HR and many specialized human resources jobs.

Master’s Degrees in Human Resource Management

A master’s degree in human resources can take anywhere from one to three years to complete. These set aside the general studies classes in favor of more advanced and specialized courses in various HR topics. These equip you for real executive positions in major organizations, like director or VP of human resources, or to take on highly specialized jobs in the field.

Doctoral Degrees in Human Resource Management

A PhD in HR management is typically only pursued by those who are looking for a career in research or academics. Taking between three and five years to complete, they have a focus that is more scholarly than operational. But the field needs individuals who can drive new practices forward through development of theory and advanced study. That’s where you are headed if this is your path.

Of course, just because the degree has the title of human resources management, that doesn’t necessarily mean it leads directly to management jobs. HR management is just what the field is called. But any of them can lead you on your path up the career ladder to management and leadership positions eventually.

Picking the Right Concentration Can Shape Your Post-service HR Career

HR degrees also come with a fearsome number of concentrations available. Each offers a chance for you to hone the same specific HR skills you specialized in while you were in the service, or to broaden your scope by picking up new talents and new areas of knowledge.

Popular concentrations include:

You’ll also find degree programs in other majors that offer concentrations in HR management. It’s very common to find degrees in business administration that come with HR concentrations.

Depending on your individual focus and goals, these can make a lot of sense to pursue. The difference is just a matter of focus—an MBA with a concentration in HR management will stack HR studies on top of a full focus on business administration, where an HR degree means HR subjects come first.

A Human Resources Curriculum Hits the Highlights of Business and Staff Management

leading a meetingOf course, your curriculum will in part reflect the concentration that you choose. But there are also many standard courses in every HR degree program that prepare you for a generalist role. Some of these will reflect or extend training you received as a military HR specialist, making them easy work. Others will introduce you to important new concepts and skills that are only needed in civilian HR work.

In both cases, they represent the comprehensive set of training and expertise that employers expect from HR managers.

The Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System Offers Lessons for HR IT Projects

trouble in data centerDIMHRS is a cautionary tale that is still spoken of in hushed terms in the halls of the Pentagon. With your background in the service, you’ll be able to apply some of the lessons in your own dealings with information technology projects in HR.

In the mid-1990s, as the big technology revolution was sweeping the country, SecDef’s (the Secretary of Defense) office noticed that each branch was spending a lot of time and money maintaining more than 90 separate HR and personnel systems. By combining payroll and record-keeping across the DoD, they figured they could save a bundle of taxpayer’s money.

DIMHRS was the proposed replacement. Contracted to Northrup Grumman for development in 2003 for $281 million, costs blossomed and the responsibility for project management bounced around the Pentagon like a beach ball. Delays, technical issues, and data problems ambushed the team from left and right.

By 2010, costs had added up to $850 million, and the DoD finally pulled the plug.

The Importance of Picking Military-Supportive Schools for Your Human Resource Management Degree

Apart from picking out what concentration and level of degree to pursue in HR management, your next biggest challenge will be picking the college you are going to earn it at.

As the profession has exploded, so have degree offerings, so you won’t have any shortage of schools to choose from. But you’re not the average high-school senior looking for parties and big tailgating traditions on campus. As a veteran, you’ll be older, more mature, and have a different set of needs and priorities.

These kinds of concerns are why you are going to want to look for a military-supportive university for your HR management degree. Colleges that understand where you are coming from and have the resources and dedication to helping you get there are scattered all over the country—but you must know what to look for to find them.

Many colleges advertise themselves as military friendly. But there’s no VA definition for that term. That means you need to look closely at what they actually deliver to see how supportive they really are.

How To Tell When a College Is Truly Military Friendly

happy college studentIt starts with accepting your GI Bill® benefits. As the single most valuable veteran education benefit available to most former service members, this is key. Assuming you completed your service obligations, it will be enough to entirely cover in-state public school tuition for a four-year bachelor’s degree, plus:

If you are aiming for a school where you might have to pay out-of-state tuition, or a private school with costs exceeding the GI Bill® limits, then participation in the Yellow Ribbon program will also be crucial.

This partnership between schools and the VA allows gives schools the ability to contribute additional money toward tuition payments for as many students as they allow to participate. The VA then matches that amount. In most cases, it’s enough to cover any costs over the GI Bill® ceiling.

If you really want to measure how military friendly a school is, then looking where they spend their own money to help vets will tell you a lot.

There are many other features to consider as well:

That means there is a lot to think about. The VA’s GI Bill® comparison tool, found on the VA website, offers you an easy way to find many of those answers. It also gives you points of contact for each school, and will tell you how many vets on the GI Bill® are already attending, and whether any complaints have been made.

HR Training Isn’t the Only Benefit You Will Bring From Your Military Experience

soldier saluting at sunsetWith the right school, you will find a degree program that builds on some of the more intangible elements from your military career. The HR expertise and training are valuable, sure. But something you learn in HR is that employers want more than just the right degree and experience.

They value some other traits veterans bring to the table just as much:

Those are the qualities you’re going to be looking for as an HR manager charged with hiring only the best candidates. And they are qualities that will make you a competitive candidate for getting that job in the first place.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Human Resources Managers, Human Resources Specialists, Compensation and Benefits Managers, Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists, Labor Relations Specialists, Training and Development Managers, and Training and Development Specialists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2022.