With very few exceptions, becoming a non-commissioned officer (NCO) or petty officer in the U.S. Armed Forces is accomplished by progression through the lower enlisted ranks. However, unlike promotion through the lower enlisted tier, promotion to NCO is generally competitive. NCO ranks begin at E-4 or E-5, depending upon service and are generally attained between three and six years of service. Junior NCOs function as first-line supervisors and squad leaders, training the junior enlisted in their duties and guiding their career advancement.
Personnel may be posted to bases in their home country or overseas, according to operational need, and may be deployed from those bases on exercises or operations anywhere in the world. During peacetime, when military personnel are generally stationed in garrisons or other permanent military facilities, they mostly conduct administrative tasks, training and education activities, technology maintenance, and recruitment.
The human capital shortage may be worse than the shortage in ships. A report by the Maritime Administration to Congress highlighted the problem. The report “estimates that 11,768 qualified mariners ... are available to crew the Ready Reserve Force ... the estimated demand for mariners [in an emergency] is 13,607.” Given the shortage, those mariners who are available “may have to endure prolonged assignments or tours of duty until the emergency is over,” which will decrease effectiveness, increase errors and — of greatest concern — delay deploying the forces necessary to win a large-scale conflict.
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The Armed Forces Tuition Assistance (TA) Program allows enlisted servicemembers and offers to enroll in courses at accredited colleges, universities, junior colleges, high schools, and vocational-technical schools. TA will pay up to 100% of the cost of the course and up to 100% of the cost of obtaining a high school degree, with a limit of $250 per credit hour and an aggregate annual limit of $4,500. MGIB benefits may be used to "top up" TA benefits, paying the difference between tuition and the TA benefits. Military.com provides a good overview of the tuition assistance program.
Examinees also receive a score on what is called the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). AFQT scores are computed using the Standard Scores from four ASVAB subtests: Arithmetic Reasoning (AR), Mathematics Knowledge (MK), Paragraph Comprehension (PC), and Word Knowledge (WK). AFQT scores are reported as percentiles between 1-99. An AFQT percentile score indicates the percentage of examinees in a reference group that scored at or below that particular score. For current AFQT scores, the reference group is a sample of 18 to 23 year old youth who took the ASVAB as part of a national norming study conducted in 1997. Thus, an AFQT score of 90 indicates that the examinee scored as well as or better than 90% of the nationally-representative sample of 18 to 23 year old youth. An AFQT score of 50 indicates that the examinee scored as well as or better than 50% of the nationally-representative sample.