Military faces dilemmas as enlistment of jobless grows

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Laid off his service-station job more than a month ago, unable to collect unemployment benefits, and about to become a father, 23-year-old Paul Younie needed a job. So he joined the Air Force last week.

The same day, a 32-year-old free-lance artist appeared at the busy downtown Boston Army recruiting office to discuss ''seriously'' joining the Army in order to finance a career change.

Mr. Younie, with his long hair, beard, and jeans, looks and talks more like a peace marcher of a decade ago than a military recruit. And the artist, an impeccably tailored woman with every hair in place, looks more like a fashion model than a boot-camp candidate.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

While they may sound like atypical military prospects, their reasons for joining are about as typical as any recruit's today. Paul Zebal, who enlisted in the Army for a second time last week after being laid off his job as a machinist , sums up what appears to be behind much of the US military's best recruiting year since the draft was dropped in 1973: ''There're no jobs out there and this is a steady job for three years - a guaranteed roof over your head.''

Tough economic times appear to be good times for recruiting, boosting the all-volunteer-military concept. While the Pentagon boasts that more and better-qualified people are trying to join the military, others suggest that the current situation, while largely positive, is veiling tougher, long-term issues.

For example, what is likely to happen to recruiting when the promised economic recovery materializes and more civilian jobs are available? With a larger pool to choose from, the military can be more selective - but are the hard-core unemployed, like minorities, who generally score lower on aptitude tests, likely to be edged out of job opportunities in the services? While the military may be able to attract more recruits with its array of job training, fringe and college benefits, and bonus programs, will it be able to keep personnel from leaving for better paying civilian jobs once they are trained? Despite a nearly one-third, across-the-board military pay increase between 1980 and 1981, and despite increased defense spending, how long can military pay compete with the private sector?

The four branches of the US military not only achieved 103 percent of the Defense Department's 330,000 military recruitment quota for fiscal year 1982 (which ended in October), but by year-end they had signed up enough delayed-entry recruits to fill 30 percent of the 1983 quota, says Dr. Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, and logistics.

High unemployment has been a major factor in increased military enlistment, says Dr. Martin Binkin, a defense specialist with the Brookings Institution. Even with an economic upturn, he says, ''the military can still enjoy the effects of a recession for the next three or four years.'' He says young people, especially those in the age groups being recruited, are usually the last demographic group to feel the effects of economic change such as a recovery. But he adds that the military still faces the problem of a reduced pool of potential recruits as the population of 18-year-olds shrinks - a manpower problem that has been looming since the baby boom leveled off in the early 1960s.

The Defense Department's Dr. Korb notes that with the selectivity made possible by an increase in the number of potential recruits, the military has seen a dramatic increase in the quality of enlistees. While high-school graduates comprised only 50 percent of all recruits in 1980, 80 percent of the 1982 recruits had high school diplomas, he says.

About 30 percent of all recruits between 1977 and 1980 scored below average on military aptitude tests, while only 16 percent were in that category in 1981 and 1982, according to Brookings statistics.

''Any attempt to improve the quality of a recruit as measured by the aptitude test score is going to have racial connotations, intended or not,'' says Dr. Binkin, who says whites tend to score higher on these tests, which have been the focus of controversy. ''So during periods of growing unemployment with additional young whites finding the military attractive, they'll have a better chance of being accepted.''

The military has been the principal employer of young blacks, Binkin says, adding that until recently, 40 percent of blacks eligible for the armed services have entered the military. ''As the economy has soured, you see blacks being squeezed out (of the military),'' Binkin says, adding that 37 percent of all recruits in 1979 were black compared with only 24 percent today.

Dr. Korb and other military officials admit that much of today's recruiting success is windfall from the tough economic times, but they add that there are other factors involved in the lure of the uniform. They reason that if recruiting were directly related to unemployment, enlistment would be much higher in the depressed industrial areas. But statistics don't support that theory, they say.

Job training, fringe and college benefits, plus higher pay and bonus programs make the military attractive, they say. ''There are some big bucks to be made in this business,'' boasts Lt. Col. Bill Ryan, who is in charge of Boston-area recruiting for the Army, the military branch that has traditionally had the toughest time finding recruits and spends $80 million a year on recruiting advertising. He says that today's youth, who don't have the low regard for the military common during the Vietnam era, attach no stigma to taking advantage of military benefits.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...