The deepening recession that has brought long unemployment lines in Detroit and other cities may have, if not a ''silver lining,'' at least a khaki-colored one.
Frustrated by a gloomy job outlook, more and more people are deciding to don a military uniform rather than jostle for work in the civilian marketplace.
US Army enlistments are up. Reenlistments are growing. And Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) enrollments are at their highest levels in years. Even some veterans who have tasted civilian life for a time are returning to active duty. And high school graduates are increasingly looking to the armed forces as providing an immediate job opportunity.
Although the recession isn't the only reason enlistments are up, it certainly is playing a part. ''We do know that unemployment has an effect,'' says William Caldwell, a spokesman for the Defense Department. ''We track it very closely.''
For the second year in a row the Army has met its quotas with ease. During the Army's 1979 fiscal year, the only recent year the All-Volunteer Army did not meet its quota, civilian employment opportunities were high, Mr. Caldwell points out. Now, however, the reverse is true.
Detroit, one of the areas hardest hit by the recession, is the No. 1 recruiting district in the country. In Boston, Army recruitment is up 17 percent this quarter over the same quarter last year. In Philadelphia, recruiters met 104 percent of their goals last fiscal year. So far this year, Air Force recruiters there already have met 60 percent of their new quotas.
The reasons for such success appear to be many. Not only has the economy tightened up job opportunities, but the armed forces are aggressively going after recruits, especially those with high school diplomas in hand. New education benefits, pay hikes, and cash bonuses are just a few of the carrots the military dangles in front of potential recruits. One Army assistance program provides as much as $15,000 in educational funds after only a two-year tour of duty.
That willingness to help recruits attain their educational and job goals is also paying off with college students too. Record numbers now are scurrying into their campus ROTC offices in search of funds for education as well as guaranteed jobs after graduation. After an enrollment low of 33,000 ROTC students back in 1973, the organization now boasts over 72,000 students involved - a 3,000 -student jump over last year.
A hefty increase in the number of ROTC scholarships available has made a big difference. Some 7,000 more scholarships are being offered this year compared with last year. Additionally, the military has begun working with students in their choices of majors and job preferences. One Army spokesman says the attempt to match the undergraduate's major with his Army job is ''the wave of the future.''
But job training appears to be ROTC's biggest draw. ''Most students would probably say its the scholarships that initially attracted them,'' says Col. Richard James of the Army ROTC program at Northeastern University in Boston. ''But keep talking, and you realize its the job training they're really after.'' One former ROTC student, Capt. Ron Anderson, agrees. ''With the Army career opportunities available, you are very marketable when you come out.''
Colonel James credits the current ROTC students with being more ''practically oriented'' about their career goals. This year Northeastern's Army ROTC, which recently spawned new ROTC programs at two nearby universities, boasts a 17 percent increase in student participation.
ROTC spokesmen point more proudly to the new retention rate, too - over 70 percent of ROTC Army graduates stay on for active duty. ''Yes, we have more scholarships and better training,'' says one spokesman at Army ROTC headquarters in Hampton, Va., ''but there are just a lot of closet patriots out there.''
Recruiters are equally happy about the unusually high number of high school graduates that now are going into the military. Last year, over 80 percent of all Army recruits were high school graduates - the most since 1974. ''The Army is now viewed as a means to an end,'' says one recruiter in the Pittsburgh area. ''Just look at our ad campaign - 'Be all you can be.'''
And if the recruits are benefiting from the Army more now than ever, so is the Army gaining from them. ''This is the highest educational level we've had since 1964,'' says Caldwell. ''That means fewer desertions, fewer AWOLs. High school graduates are twice as likely to complete their initial enlistment as those without high school diplomas.''
The enlistment incentives go beyond simple cash in hand. ''The big reason people join up is job training,'' says Jack Muhlenbeck of the US Army Recruiting Command at Fort Sheridan near Chicago. ''Straight pay is really a secondary reason.'' Some recruiters, in fact, say they don't believe high unemployment the unemployment factor altogether.
''The unemployed aren't our market anyway,'' says a spokesman from the Detroit Recruiting Command. ''Our high school graduate recruits haven't been unemployed.'' But he adds, ''lots of kids here see their parents unemployed, and they listen to their high school recruiters more closely.''
Mary Michaloski, a college student in northeastern Minnesota, agrees. Looking for scarce jobs in her field of social work seems ''kind of scary.'' She talked to her local recruiter who encouraged her toward the Army's social work program. ''I think I might do it,'' she said, ''if I can't get a job in my field.''