When Sean Arnette, a former first lieutenant in the US Air Force, led missions out of Osan Air Base 48 miles south of the Korean demilitarised zone the last thing on his mind was applying to business school.
“I was a 23-year-old junior officer, fresh out of the training programme and younger than 80 per cent of the people who were technically working for me,” he says. “And yet the military trusted me to be in charge. At first I thought, ‘How am I going to manage this?’ But the Air Force teaches you that you are more capable than you think.”
Shortly after returning from South Korea, however, the native of Wisconsin decided against a career in the military. Business school – where he could hone his leadership skills and put his new-found confidence to work – seemed like a logical next step.
“I’d always been interested in business and I felt an MBA would not only give me the technical fundamentals, but also a good network,” says Mr Arnette, who will start at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in September.
He is not the only former military officer opting for an MBA. Schools in the US report a sharp rise in applications from service personnel leaving the military and looking to switch careers.
At the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business, US military personnel accounted for 9 per cent of this year’s total applicant pool, an increase on recent years.
“The MBA is more and more being seen as an option for people to transition back to a career in civilian life,” says Pete Johnson, executive director of MBA Admissions at Haas.
While most business schools do not track applications from service personnel, some offer special tuition breaks to military personnel, while others have set up fellowships for veterans.
These efforts come as the military is having difficulty recruiting and retaining personnel. About 40,000 servicemen and women leave the military each year and about 1,000 elect to attend MBA programmes, according to figures from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), an association of business schools.
Thomas Caleel, director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania predicts those numbers will rise.
“After 9/11 a lot of young men and women graduating from top academic programmes joined the military out of a sense of patriotism and duty,” he says. “Now they’re rotating out and wondering: what is my next step?”
Mr Caleel says that today’s military officers are attractive candidates for MBA programmes because their skills have already been tested. “These students have leadership skills, tenacity, a strong work ethic and an interesting world view. They do very well at business school.”
Many military personnel have financial support to pursue graduate programmes. The average “officer in transition” has about $25,000 in GI Bill benefits over the life of a typical MBA, according to GMAC. And a new programme by the US Department of Defense aimed at retaining officers beyond their initial five-year commitment will offer tuition and salary for attendance at full-time graduate programmes.
“We see someone who is bright, disciplined, who already knows how to work,” says Dennis Nations, director of graduate admissions at Babson College.
“They also bring a very different background and experience to the classroom. They have different perspectives on business issues – whether it be about ethics, management, operations or leadership.”
In 2005, GMAC started a programme – Operation MBA – to encourage active and former military personnel to pursue business degrees. More than 60 institutions in the US, Europe and Australia have signed on to the programme as “military friendly” schools that will waive the application fee for service people who have been on active duty within the three years before applying.
Schools have also created programmes targeting former military personnel. Syracuse University last year started an “Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans” which has since expanded to three other campuses: UCLA Anderson School of Management, Florida State University’s College of Business and Mays Business School at Texas A&M.
“These are people who are trained in very narrow disciplines: they’re a pilot, or they’re a civil engineer. This allows them to broaden that experience and makes their technical skills more applicable to a business context,” says Mike Haynie, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse, himself a former Air Force major.
The programme, paid for by private donors and foundations, includes a self-study curriculum, a university residency and a year of support from faculty mentors.
“I don’t think we have a massive readiness to absorb all these returning veterans into the workforce,” says Judy Olian, dean of Anderson. “This is a recognition that we, as business schools, have a social obligation to help ease the transition [for these people] back into the marketplace.”
Business schools also have an easier time placing former military personnel in the workforce, says Mr Caleel. “Employers love candidates with good military experience,” he says.
“These tend to be people with good leadership capabilities. Military people understand teamwork and they have had to work under intense pressure and deadlines. Employers have a demand for those skills.”