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Army Officer vs. Enlisted: What’s The Difference?


Photo U.S. Army

Every year men and women around the country flock to U.S. military recruiting offices to join one of the active duty, reserve, or National Guard branches. Many walk in with no knowledge about the military, and sign up to serve, unaware that they likely could have gotten a much better contract or opportunity to serve if they just spent a little time doing some research and asking some questions.

If a person ends up in a military job they don’t like or didn’t want, it is nobody’s fault but their own for not doing their homework. Recruiters are not at fault because a person signs a contract to be a truck driver, when in fact they wanted to be a computer specialist. Doing research and getting informed is the key to happiness in anything.

Officer Vs Enlisted
That said, it’s important to know the difference between officer vs enlisted. The answer is simple, but like anything, there are some variables that make this a moving target to hit. In sum, enlisted personnel sign contracts binding them to a period of service in a particular occupational specialty. It is literally a contract between the enlistee and the federal government and there are ramifications for violating that contract. That’s why it is important to be smart before anything is signed.

And while many in the enlisted ranks humbly refer to themselves as “worker bees,” that is partially accurate. It is true, missions are mostly executed by the enlisted ranks which makes up the majority of the workforce in the U.S. military. Think of it like a company, there are lots and lots of programmers, analysts, sales personnel, admin assistants, coordinators, etc., but there are few directors, vice presidents and c-suite personnel.

It is important to note that as an individual stays in the enlisted ranks, they become more of a leader and manager. That’s not to imply that they work less, on the contrary, the work just changes, they are still hands on workers, but they become more and more the managers of larger groups of people and more resources as they gain experience and move up in rank.


Photo by Sirena Clark, Fort Campbell Public Affairs Office

For example, a private in the Army will have the basic responsibility of doing their job. They are primarily responsible for themselves and maybe their battle buddy. However, a staff sergeant might supervise seven soldiers and be responsible for them and their equipment. But the key difference in officer vs enlisted is that enlisted personnel have a contractual obligation to the federal government, and officers have what used to be referred to as a gentleman’s or lady’s agreement with the government.

An officer is commissioned by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Congress and in theory can resign his or her commission at any time. Notice we said, in theory. Nothing is that black and white, and each situation is different. For example, if an officer decides to resign, but Uncle Sam paid for their college through one of the many commissioning programs, that officer might not be released from their service commitment unless they write the government a check to pay back the education that was given to them in exchange for a certain number of years of commissioned service.

Another key point in the officer vs enlisted comparison is that enlisted personnel are assigned a military occupational specialty. This is the job that a person performs during their enlistment term. Using the previous example, after an enlistee finishes basic training, they would get sent to transportation school to learn how to drive a truck and for the term of their enlistment, they would drive trucks. This train, educate, equip and mentor system is done in basically all branches of the military and each service member is expected to have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to ensure the success of their unit’s missions.

While there are non-commissioned officers that tend to be the first line supervisors in the military, officers lead enlisted personnel. Officers plan missions, provide orders, and assign tasks. They are problem solvers and planners. That’s not to say that non-commissioned officers do not issue orders, assign tasks, or plan missions; they do, however it is the officers who have command responsibility and authority over their personnel. The responsibility is given from the officers to the enlisted as needed through delegation. Let’s see if we can clarify that using a corporate setting.

Let’s say there is a department creative director (officer) and they ask the creative team manager (non-commissioned officer) to create some graphics for a presentation. The creative director (officer) issues some guidance on expectations and deadlines to the team manager (the NCO) who in turn, approaches the creative team (enlisted). The creative team does the work, which is managed by the manager, and oversight is done by the director. The authority and responsibility for the project is handed down through the chain of command, but ultimately the director is responsible for the team and the manager’s work. That’s a great example to think about when comparing officer vs enlisted.

Any person thinking about officer vs enlisted should read on because this article can hopefully help a person make the right choice in picking officer vs enlisted.


Photo by Army Sgt Sydney Mariette

Officer Vs Enlisted: Enlisted
Everyone should have goals that point them in a direction that leads to something positive. Maybe a person wants to get into the technology field, but they lack the money to pay for an education. The military can help with that.

By enlisting in the military, they can enlist to be an information technology specialist. The military will pay them as they learn a skill and upon completion of their training, they will work in the IT field. In addition, some branches might have an enlistment bonus if they sign up in high-demand jobs, it can be lucrative.

Upon completion of an enlistment, an individual can leave the service with professional training and experience under their belt. It’s a win-win and add to that they might qualify for educational benefits that can be used while they are serving or after their service if they want to go to college or trade school.

If contemplating enlisting, a person should have goals. Goals help direct what a person does while they are serving.

Officer Vs Enlisted: Officer
In most cases, if a person wants to become an officer in the U.S. armed forces, they require a college degree. For example, if a person has finished college and they find themselves pulled to the recruiting office for whatever the reason, remember, they do not have to enlist, unless they really want to.


Army photo by Patrick A. Albright

Recruiters will say that with a college degree a person can enlist at an advanced rank which is presented to a person after they complete basic training but coming in as an E-3 or whatever grade is promised pales in comparison to entering the service as an officer; at least financially.

An individual with a college degree can get commissioned as an officer in any of the branches of service. But just like the enlisted ranks, they are at the mercy of the service. Meaning, a person might want to be an armor officer because they think tanks are cool, but the Army might not have any armor officer slots. While the individual might qualify to be a tanker, the Army might not take them as an officer because there aren’t positions for them to fill.

Or maybe another person wants to be a cyber warfare officer, but again, the Army tells them that there are no slots. What do they do? Having a plan can help. In this case, if the Army is telling a potential candidate they don’t have slots, they can easily visit or call the other services and ask their recruiters if they have cyber warfare officer billets. If they do, offers should be explored.

The paths to the officer ranks are similar to those taken by enlisted personnel. Officer candidates must take an officer exam that is different for each branch. If the candidate qualifies and they are medically fit, they attend officer candidate school where they get indoctrinated into the military. OCS is basically basic training for officers. Each branch of service has officer training that varies in duration and difficulty.

Once done with OCS, officers attend their basic courses which teaches them their jobs. There, they will learn the technical aspects of their profession along with leadership skills that are reinforced from OCS. So, if a person signs up to be an infantry officer, they go to school and learn how to do that. If they are pilots, they go to flight school. A person commissioned as a logistician, goes to training to learn logistical management. Each school varies.

As mentioned earlier, in most cases, a four-year degree is required to become an officer. However, a person can become an officer by attending one of the service academies or entering a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at a college or university.

The service academies are normally fully funded four-year programs and ROTC can be a two-or four-year program, depending when a person joins.


Army photo by Lara Poirrier

In some cases, an individual can become an officer directly without attending a service academy, OCS, or ROTC. Some of the branches, like the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, and their reserve and National Guard components (Army and Navy), offer personnel direct commissions which allow the individual to walk into the service as a commissioned officer.

In many cases, those direct appointments are reserved for medical, theological, and legal personnel who have a high-level of educational credentials and/or professional experience.

Officer Vs Enlisted: Quick Facts
Deciding on officer vs enlisted can be a challenge, so here’s a quick list of facts that might help:

  • Commissioned officers earn more money (ordinarily). For example, a new officer in grade 0-1, earns $3477.30 per month. An enlisted person in grade E-1 who is also new earns $1693.00 per month in the 2022 pay tables. That’s a big difference, but so is the level of responsibility.
  • Enlisted personnel going into high-demand jobs can make huge bonuses by enlisting, but it is important to keep in mind that some of those jobs lack people to fill those positions for a reason. But the enlistment and then reenlistment bonus can be very tempting.
  • Junior enlisted personnel, those with three years of service or less, do work that is supervised by non-commissioned officers. Commissioned officers manage people and resources and are considered mid-level to upper management. But keep in mind, non-commissioned officers can also be considered these levels of management depending on the rank and position they hold.
  • There are more enlisted personnel than officers.

Ultimately, the decision of officer vs enlisted is one that rests with the individual and what they would like to do with their lives.

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