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More Joining US Military as Jobs Dwindle

by Lizette Alvarez

As the number of jobs across the nation dwindles, more Americans are joining the military, lured by a steady paycheck, benefits and training.

Recruiter Sgt. Mario Ashe (L) talking in the tactical operations center area of the U.S. Army Experience center at the Franklin Mills mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 7, 2009. The U.S. Army, struggling to ensure it has enough manpower as it fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is wooing young Americans with video games, Google maps and simulated attacks on enemy positions from an Apache helicopter. (Tim Shaffer/Reuters) The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said.

And the trend seems to be accelerating. The Army exceeded its targets each month for October, November and December - the first quarter of the new fiscal year - bringing in 21,443 new soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. December figures were released last week.

Recruiters also report that more people are inquiring about joining the military, a trend that could further bolster the ranks. Of the four armed services, the Army has faced the toughest recruiting challenge in recent years because of high casualty rates in Iraq and long deployments overseas. Recruitment is also strong for the Army National Guard, according to Pentagon figures. The Guard tends to draw older people.

"When the economy slackens and unemployment rises and jobs become more scarce in civilian society, recruiting is less challenging," said Curtis Gilroy, the director of accession policy for the Department of Defense.

Still, the economy alone does not account for the military's success in attracting more recruits. The recent decline in violence in Iraq has "also had a positive effect," Dr. Gilroy said.

Another lure is the new G. I. Bill, which will significantly expand education benefits. Beginning this August, service members who spend at least three years on active duty can attend any public college at government expense or apply the payment toward tuition at a private university. No data exist yet, but there has traditionally been a strong link between increased education benefits and new enlistments.

The Army and Marine Corps have also added more recruiters to offices around the country in the past few years, increased bonuses and capitalized on an expensive marketing campaign.

The Army has managed to meet its goals each year since 2006, but not without difficulty.

As casualties in Iraq mounted, the Army began luring new soldiers by increasing signing bonuses for recruits and accepting a greater number of people who had medical and criminal histories, who scored low on entrance exams and who failed to graduate from high school.

The recession has provided a jolt for the Army, which hopes to decrease its roster of less qualified applicants in the coming year. It also has helped ease the job of recruiters who face one of the most stressful assignments in the military. Recruiters must typically talk to 150 people before finding one person who meets military qualifications and is interested in enlisting. Dr. Gilroy said the term "all-volunteer force" should really be "an all-recruited force."

Now, at least, the pool has widened. Recruiting offices are reporting a jump in the number of young men and women inquiring about joining the service in the past three months.

As a rule, when unemployment rates climb so do military enlistments. In November, the Army recruited 5,605 active-duty soldiers, 6 percent more than its target, and the Army Reserve signed up 3,270 soldiers, 16 percent more than its goal. December, when the jobless rate reached 7.2 percent, saw similar increases in recruitments.

"They are saying, ‘There are no jobs, no one is hiring,' or if someone is hiring they are not getting enough hours to support their families or themselves," said Sgt. First Class Phillip Lee, 41, the senior recruiter in the Army office in Bridgeport, Conn.

The Bridgeport recruitment center is not exactly a hotbed for enlistments. But Sergeant Lee said it had signed up more than a dozen people since October, which is above average.

He said he had been struck by the number of unemployed construction workers and older potential recruits - people in their 30s and beyond - who had contacted him to explore the possibility. The Army age limit is 42, which was raised from 35 in 2006 to draw more applicants.

"Some are past the age limit, and they come in and say, ‘Will the military take me now?' " Sergeant Lee said. "They are having trouble finding well-paying jobs."

Of the high school graduates, a few told him recently that they had to scratch college plans because they could not get students loans or financial aid. The new G. I. bill is an especially attractive incentive for that group.

The Army Reserve and the National Guard have also received a boost from people eager to supplement their falling incomes.

Sean D. O'Neil, a 22-year-old who stood shivering outside an Army recruitment office in St. Louis, said he was forgoing plans to become a guitar maker for now, realizing that instruments are seen as a luxury during a recession. Mr. O'Neil, a Texas native, ventured to St. Louis for an apprenticeship but found himself $30,000 in debt. Joining the Army, his Plan B, was a purely financial decision. With President-elect Barack Obama in office, he expects the troop levels in Iraq to be lowered.

Going to war, although likely, feels safer to him. "I'm doing this for eight years," he said. "Hopefully, when I get out, I'll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I'll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line."

Ryen Trexler, 21, saw the recession barreling toward him as he was fixing truck tires for Allegheny Trucks in Altoona, Pa. By last summer, his workload had dropped from fixing 10 to 15 tires a day to mending two to four, or sometimes none. As the new guy on the job, he knew he would be the first to go.

He quit and signed up for the Jobs Corps Center in Pittsburgh, a federal labor program that would pay for two years of training, figuring he would learn to be a heavy equipment operator. When a local Army recruiter walked into the center, his pitch hit a nerve. Mr. Trexler figured he could earn more money and learn leadership skills in the Army. Just as important, he could ride out the recession for four years and walk out ready to work in civilian construction.

Although the other branches of the military have not struggled as much as the Army to recruit, they, too, are attracting people who would not ordinarily consider enlisting.

Just a few months ago, Guy Derenoncourt was working as an equity trader at a boutique investment firm in New York. Then the equity market fell apart and he quit.

Last week, he enlisted for a four-year stint in the Navy, a military branch he chose because it would keep him out of Afghanistan and offer him a variety of aviation-related jobs.

"I really had no intention to join if it weren't for the financial turmoil, because I was doing quite well," Mr. Derenoncourt, 25, said, adding that a sense of patriotism made it an easier choice.

The Army has struggled to attract the same caliber of enlistee that it did before the war. In 2003, 94 percent of new active-duty recruits had high school degrees. Last year, the number increased slightly from 2007, but it was still 82 percent. The percentage of new recruits who score poorly on the military entrance exam also remains comparatively high. The same is true for enlistees who need permission to enter the military for medical or "moral" reasons, typically misdemeanor juvenile convictions. Last year, 21.5 percent of the 80,000 new recruits in the Army required a so-called medical or moral waiver, 2 percent higher than in 2006. Fewer recruits needed waivers for felony convictions, though, compared with 2007.

Malcolm Gay and Sean Hamill contributed reporting.

 

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