A Diversity Focus for the Armed Forces

When President Harry S. Truman signed into effect Executive Order 9981 in 1948, he envisioned an armed force that would extend opportunity to all persons. Today, the military is striving to maintain this vision by recruiting and retaining an organization that is reflective of the country’s diverse population.

There are career opportunities in roughly 23 categories that range from accounting and design to healthcare and information technology, for qualified individuals in all branches of the military. Job prospects are projected to be strong through 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For all branches, there are specific promotional steps available for enlisted personnel, warrant, and commissioned officers.

Despite the broad range of career opportunities available through the armed forces, for African American personnel advancement starts to waiver at the more senior levels. Currently, blacks represent a total of 17% in the military, including enlistment, officers, and general (senior) officers. African Americans make up just 9% of the officer core and 5.4% of general officers. According to Clarence “C.J.” Johnson, principal director and director of civilian equal employment opportunity with the Department of Defense, it takes at least 25 years to train and develop a service person into a senior position. So aside from focusing on a career in tactical operations, a leadership track that pertains to combat arms and pilots, one must start this career path early–upon enlistment or graduation from a service academy or officer training program.

We talked to military representatives about those challenges to offer insight on opportunities and retention concerns.


According to Brig. Gen. Arnold N. Gordon-Bray, deputy commander for cadet command, there are 170 different career occupations available. He believes the primary skill one develops from serving in the Army is leadership, as well as the values of a soldier: loyalty, duty, respect, self-service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. In fiscal year 2008, out of 452,065 enlisted members, 21.1% were African American. The total number of commissioned officers was 72,928, of which 12.4% were black.

Gordon-Bray says that although retention rates are “very good,” approximately 91%, African Americans are overrepresented in enlistment ranks and underrepresented in officer ranks. Of the most senior level positions African Americans have attained in the Army, there have only been five four-star generals. Only one, Gen. Kip Ward, is still on active duty.

“We have a tendency to join those branches of the Army that have a direct correlation to civilian jobs like engineers, logistics (maintenance, supply, administration), and transportation,” explains Gordon-Bray. “Those jobs do not necessarily prepare you to be the top leaders in the Army.” Additionally, numbers in advance positions have thinned as a result of some potential leaders finding opportunities in civilian industries.


Aside from the general categories of opportunities, the Navy also boasts stronger openings in healthcare careers for degree-holding service members. And Capt. Ken Barrett, director of diversity for the chief of naval personnel, explains that retention has been equal between races and ethnicities, with African Americans at approximately 40% of the enlisted force and 20% of the officer force. There are currently four African American three-star admirals in the Navy.

The focus of the Navy’s retention efforts, however, has been on keeping women past their service obligation years. This has led to the development of the Task Force Life Work Initiative, which allows a service member to take a three-year sabbatical without being penalized for lost time. The career intermission pilot program allows enlisted members and officers a year off, with medical and dental insurance benefits, to pursue personal obligations. Women are also allotted extended maternal leave time of 12 months up from four to enable positive family development.

Air Force

There are more than 140 career specialties in this branch, with an emphasis on engineering, security forces, dentistry, nursing, medicine and linguistics.

According to Capt. Amy Bartholomew, chief of media, the Air Force is currently seeing its highest levels of a diverse workforce. In fiscal year 2008, of the 27,800 who enlisted, 22.6% are women, 18% are African American, and 13.8% are Hispanic.

Retention efforts revolve around programs such as bonuses, special pay, and tuition assistance. These programs target highly skilled airmen with specific, difficult-to-replace specialties. Like their sister branches, the Air Force acknowledges that their officer rates are parallel with their enlisted ranks.