Most of the services have a very normal progression in ranks on the enlisted side. Three enlisted ranks of non-rated grates, then the non-commissioned officer grades.
For example, the Navy has a Seaman Recruit (E-1), Seaman Apprentice (E-2), Seaman (E-3), and then moves into the petty officer ranks, such as Petty Officer Third Class (E-4).
The Army, being the Army, has to take a simple matter, and make it just a little more complicated. You folks have heard of Privates, Privates First Class (or PFC) and Corporals. But what about the Specialist?
Specialist is a rank in the Army, rather than a description. Specialists (SPC) are in pay grade E-4, which is the same as a Corporal. Why have two ranks at the same pay grade? Well, we have to go back in history a bit.
During the massive expansion of the Army during World War II, as fast as the fighting forces grew, there was an even faster growth of the technical and support services in the Army. Large numbers of soldiers would be required to work on and repair equipment such as telephone and radio systems, fire control systems, engines and aviation equipment. As a reward for this technical expertise, soldiers (many with a great deal of experience in similar fields from their civilian days) were rewarded with promotion. But these soldiers had little or no supervisory duties, and as a sop to the prestige of the Non-commissioned Officers, the “Technician” grades were implemented. Basically, if you were in combat arms, you went to become an NCO, but in the technical arms and services, you were as likely to be promoted to the Technician grades. Roughly, each pay grade had a title for an NCO, and one for a Technician. If two soldiers were in the same pay grade, but one was an NCO, and one was a Technician, the NCO would have seniority of the two.
After the war, the Technician grades were renamed Specialists, and there were a series of grades, from Specialist Four (pay grade E-4) through Specialist Seven (pay grade E-7). The corresponding NCO grades would be Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, and Sergeant First Class. Again, in each pay grade, the NCO would be senior to the specialist. For instance, a Staff Sergeant would be senior to a Specialist Six, who would be senior to a Sergeant.
In the mid 1980s, the decision was made to phase out the grades of Specialist Five through Seven. Soldiers in those grades were “promoted” to the NCO rank in that grade, and were fully expected to perform leadership and supervisory duties.
But what about pay grade E-4? In combat arms, the basic fire team is lead by a Sergeant (E-5). As a first line supervisor, he doesn’t really need any NCOs underneath him. So what do you do with all the PFCs who are ready to be promoted, but aren’t ready for promotion to Sergeant? How shall they spend their time as E-4s? Well, make them a Specialist, and let them continue their regular duties.
Prior to promotion to Sergeant, soldiers need to complete formal schooling to prepare them to be NCOs, as well as appear before a board of senior NCOs to show they are suitable to be leaders. After this board and schooling, these soldiers are considered “promotable” and are often “promoted” in grade from Specialist to Corporal (not always, however- your humble scribe when directly from Specialist to Sergeant, with nary a day wearing Corporal stripes).
Units are almost always short on NCOs. It is not at all unusual for a soldier to fulfill a role higher than his pay grade would normally indicate. Thus, there’s nothing unusual in seeing a Sergeant serving as a squad leader, which is normally a position for a Staff Sergeant. Similarly, many Corporals, while awaiting their promotion to Sergeant, serve as team leaders or vehicle commanders.
Now, here’s the thing. There are more Specialists in the Army than any other single pay grade. Promotion to Specialist is more or less automatic, based on time in service. And while as an NCO, I expected Privates and PFCs to not have a lot of knowledge and to do dumb things on a fairly regular basis, I expected a lot more from my Specialists. While I might have to very closely supervise a PFC in something as simple as cleaning a weapon, I usually only had to spot check a Specialist. And when I told my driver to get the Bradley ready to roll, I knew that when I got ready to mount up, he’d done the maintenance, fueled the track, and stored everything in the proper place.
Compared to the trades, the Specialists are beyond their apprenticeship, but not yet master craftsmen- they are the journeymen of the Army.