Pros and Cons of Working in the Defense Industry

A look back on 10 years working for the military

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Image for post
Tech. Sgt. Jason Wilkerson | https://www.luke.af.mil/News/Photos/igphoto/2000532983/

Intro

I have been working for the military for the past 10 years; first as a member of the military and later as a contractor writing software.

You can do things that you would never be able to do anywhere else. The above photo is of one of the jets that I worked on as an avionics journeyman.

I left active duty early through the Palace Chase program to go back to college. The catch is that you have to be at least half way though your first contract’s term and you have to serve double the amount of time left on your current contract back to the Air National Guard.

After I finished my bachelors and I was a semester into my masters, I was hired as a Data Scientist and Software Engineer by a couple defense contractors. Many companies have aspects of their culture that are the same and some parts that are different, but when you are in the defense contracting world there is that overarching culture you are apart of that is really hard to escape. You may have flexible hours, the ability to choose where you want to live, and you can always leave but depending on where you choose to live, your options may be limited. In Central New York, there are very few opportunities for people whose careers are based on computer-based STEM other than working for defense.

Defense work might be something you enjoy, but it may also be a gilded cage. Before you make the choice to work in the industry, I would like to list a couple pros and cons you should consider beforehand.

Pros

  • Insulated from market fluctuations: A market crash is less likely is affect you when you work in the defense industry (more so if you are a government employee). Your company may be publicly traded, but most of your money comes from the government, so as long as the government doesn’t shut down, the money should keep coming.
  • Red tape: Red tape often leads to decreased need to be productive all the time (don’t slack off too hard).
  • Degrees matter: Degrees matter more to the government more than some of the more progressive companies. The more degrees you have the more money your company can ask the government for and they are usually willing to pay for it. This might not be a plus for people who pursued a traditional education, but it is something you can know for sure the government will reward you for.
  • Certifications are an easy way to make your bosses happy: If you like certifications, they are often appreciated by the government because it is another item that can be used to describe your qualifications.
  • Job Security: If you get a security clearance (often implied with working in defense) it helps with job security and makes it easier to find another job with another defense contractor. If you already have a Secret or Top Secret clearance, a potential employer can get you working on your next assignment sooner than someone who doesn’t have one. Note: If you are thinking about getting a job that involves getting a Top Secret clearance, be prepared to fill out a lot of paperwork describing where you have lived for the past 10 years and have people’s contact information going back that far.

Cons

  • Repetitive training: I just finished the same annual Information Assurance training I have taken every year since 2010. There might have been one or two sections that has seen an update in the last ten years. Everyone should be aware of information assurance practices, even in the commercial world, because government and corporate happen all the time. But the training should not be the same poorly animated “game” the military has been using for over a decade.
  • Endless paperwork: If there is one thing the government like is its paperwork. And if you do not fill certain forms out just right, you either are told you need to fill it out again or you are not told something was wrong and all eight of your bosses get upset with you.
  • A culture of paranoia: This might be exacerbated by being a veteran, but foreign threats are drilled into your head any time anything happens in the news. Not just Russia, China, and North Korea. It is everyone you have to be weary of (Canada, UK, EU nations, people pretending to be Americans). This comes with being given access to classified areas and materials. If you mess up there are serious consequences. Although if you report suspicious activity when you see it attaboys will come your way.
  • Subject to government shutdowns: As I eluded to when I mentioned being insulated from market fluctuations, as government instability is not great for markets. Some firms will try to have money set aside to make sure their employees do not have to worry about these events, but this is only because government shutdowns are threatened almost as often as the solstices comes around.
  • Subject to federal laws: You may not participate in or consume anything that is federally illegal; even if the state you live in has deemed it legal. This includes but is not limited to using CBD for medicinal purposed or owning pot stocks (this one does not have a straight answer to it, but I have received guidance to buy them if you have a clearance).
  • Potential Bias: This last con is something that I have perceived in my own experiences when looking for more commercial work. I do not know if this is because there is actually a bias against defense workers or if I was lacking certain skills, but my response rate from commercial companies has been significantly lower than it has been from defense contractors. This might have something to do with the job security pro I listed earlier as well.

Conclusion

I originally came up with the idea for this post when I was frustrated with some of the goings-on at work. As I fleshed out the idea and started writing something, I found rewriting sections because I was just complaining about really silly things.

I still want to warn people about getting into the defense without a heads up. I know more metropolitan areas tend to have more options for developers, but the Air Force is the only really economic driving force where I live. I could not name a company within a hour of where I live that is not a defense contractor.

Data Scientist / Software Engineer Engineer with Five Years of Experience. I love getting lost in a good problem.

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