Who's running the Army's computers?

ITworld.com –

Joining the Army doesn't necessarily mean looking down a gun barrel belonging to some far-off enemy on the battlefield; it may mean looking down the barrel of a SPARC server cluster in a climate-controlled computer room. According to Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, "We have increasing demands for technical skills."

The army and the other branches of the armed forces have plenty of opportunities for tech-savvy high school graduates, as well as older recruits that already have some post- secondary IT training. And if you don't have such training, don't worry -- they'll teach you.

That's not to say you'll never see the front lines, but somebody's got to run the computers back home. Major Dave Sorensen, Chief of Special Missions, US Army Recruiting Command, is in charge of trying to find those people. Like any other employer of high- tech staff, the Army has to compete with private industry and offer incentives. "Our competition is right here in our backyard," said Sorensen. "We used to be able to say, 'We'll give you money for college' -- but now so is local industry." To stay competitive, the Army has had to go the extra mile. And as modern warfare gets more high-tech, soldiers are increasingly able to return to the private sector with relevant experience that is of real value.

Turn to Uncle Sam

Even in the present job environment, it's still difficult to get a job with no experience, even if you have the education. "I think the Army's a great way to get that kind of relevant experience," said Caldera. "Our computer programmers are in high demand and they know it. Many of them will go into the Army and get their experience, and after serving their enlistment, they'll go take those skills to the private sector."

Job guarantee

The Army's new Partners in Youth Success (PAYS) program guarantees that you will get a job after your tour of duty is over. Pete Keating, director of communications at General Dynamics Land Systems, said, "We were willing to look at these people early, before they enlist. And if they enlist and complete their three- to four-year term of service honorably, and had the right skill mix, we could see them in certain jobs we would have available three years from the date they enlisted." General Dynamics matches up military operation specialties (MOSs, in military talk) with jobs the company has internally. The program provides General Dynamics with a steady stream of skilled high- tech workers, and at the same time provides young soldiers with relevant high-tech experience they can use in the private sector.

The downsides? Some are obvious: you eat institutional food, get up at dawn, and there are no casual Fridays. Uncle Sam frowns on facial piercings and likes short haircuts. What's more, you won't make nearly as much money as you would in the private sector. The pay obviously isn't in the same league as Silicon Valley, with new recruits starting out at $1,000 to $1,200 a month, plus room, board, and benefits, depending on what sort of education you walk in with. The benefits, which may take the form of sign- up bonuses or free education, can be substantial, however, although how much you get will depend on how long you sign up for. A two-year stint (which is a minimum requirement) will net you less goodies and opportunities; if you sign up for four years, you'll be the beneficiary of much more largesse from Uncle Sam. With the cost of a vendor-specific certification sometimes exceeding $10,000 and the cost of a full-term college degree going through the roof, free education courtesy of the US government can definitely make it worthwhile.

The high-tech Army

Knowing how to point a gun and shoot it isn't enough any more. Caldera says that the Army has become as high-tech as private industry. "We're trying to leverage technology to change war the same way that computer technology is changing every other part of our society. We believe our soldiers should have a technological advantage on the battlefield."

For example, today a soldier can whisper into a lapel pin and report his position to home base. He can take a picture of an enemy encampment through his rifle site, and can use wireless technology to email it back to headquarters. Modern soldiers have to understand that technology, and the Army needs people to design, maintain, and operate that technology.

If you're worried that you'll sign up to be a computer operator and end up peeling potatoes in Siberia, rest easy. Your path is laid out ahead of time, and yes, you do get to tell them what you want to do -- and there are plenty of high-tech jobs available. Nearly 20 percent of the overall force, both officer and enlisted, are involved in high-tech/IT jobs -- which means that out of an active force of 480,000, the Army has over 90,000 high-tech and IT positions.

The training

"The choice is theirs," Secretary Caldera says, "whether they want to work on a technical certification or whether they want to work on a degree granting program."

Training has become very popular with recruits. Although the Army offers a host of different sorts of sign-up bonuses, Caldera said that 90 percent of soldiers request training rather than a cash bonus.

As with any type of post-secondary education, there are qualifications -- and as long as you can pass the aptitude test, you can take the training you desire. It's not as hard as getting into Stanford, but you do have to take that test. But, advised Caldera, "if someone comes in and they don't score well enough on the aptitude test, there are ways to go out and try to improve your score and keep plugging away until you get a score that qualifies you for the training that you're interested in.

"That's part of the reason why we're starting the Army University Access Online education program," he said. The program can be used to gain a technical certification or a full degree. "For example, any soldier in the Army can become certified in the Microsoft operating system at no cost to them. What we're doing is wiring the barracks and giving every interested soldier a computer and printer and signing them up for school." The program will allow soldiers to choose courses from a variety of educational providers. Caldera said, "Army University Access Online is basically an open architecture, where any school that meets our quality standards" can participate. "We're hoping to give soldiers maximum choice, so that any university in the country that wants to provide classes through the Army system can reach our students."

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