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High unemployment means high military recruitment

Military recruits seek not just an adventure, but a much needed job.

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However, the military has also managed to attract an undeniably more qualified core of recruits. The number of Army recruits with a high school degree was up 11 percentage points from last year. Across the services, 96 percent of recruits had a high school diploma, the strongest percentage since 1996. Additionally, the services saw the best showing on their math and verbal aptitude test since 2004 with 73 percent of recruits scoring above average.

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For the US military, high unemployment rates have always meant a good thing for recruiting, says Lindsay Cohn, a political science professor who specializes in military personnel issues at the University of Northern Iowa. As far back as the Civil War, people have been turning to the military when the job market goes south.

"All kinds of people are losing their jobs, and all kinds of people of different levels of education and different levels of experience are going to look to the military to support their family," she says. "So you also get a quality spike when [an economic crisis] happens."

THAT QUALITY SPIKE IS NOTICEABLE, says Sgt. Greg Grayson, commander at the downtown Boston Army recruitment office where a jovial crew of soldiers in camouflage and several life-size cutouts of smiling soldiers greet visitors. "There has definitely been an increase in degree-credentialed applicants," he says. "They're done with school and the job market is not what they thought it was going to be."

Grayson says that since July his office has signed on an average of two candidates with bachelor's degrees each month – six in October. That compares with just two every three months a year ago. The office's total recruitment per month runs between nine and 12.

On an October afternoon, Vincent Cortigiano, a college dropout from Cleveland who came to Boston for the state's free healthcare and has cobbled together a living with temporary jobs, came in to sign up.

He says he couldn't afford to stay in college and chose the Army as a way to avoid going into debt.

Educated, slightly older recruits like Mr. Cortigiano, says James Allard, the Army's chief of public affairs for New England recruiting, have been "a definite positive impact on recruiting over the past year" both in terms of quality and quantity.

For those looking to the military to support their family, now more than ever recruits can make a sound living. Gone are the days of soldiers living on food stamps. Now they are among the top earners in the US for those with their education and experience.

"There's an old saying: You never get rich by joining the military. And indeed, you can't. But you will operate in the 70th percentile of earners of your time in the workforce and education," said Mr. Carr. For young recruits it's even better, he said. Those who join the services fresh out of high school are in the 90th percentile of earners in their demographic.

Additionally, the revamped GI Bill has attracted many hoping to use the military to boost their educational qualifications. Previously, the GI Bill offered soldiers only enough to pay for a small portion of their college expenses. The post-9/11 GI Bill, however, now pays full tuition at a public university in addition to providing money for housing and if the soldier decides not to use it, he or she can pass it on to his or her child.