Army Recruiting Shortfall May Presage Problems

Soaring economy makes recruiters' jobs busier, raises concerns of military readiness

Are fewer young people heeding the United States Army's call to be all that they can be?

The Army says no, but others have their doubts.

Army officials have shrugged off the shortfall in their March and April recruitment targets as an aberration. And they say they will still meet their goal of enlisting 89,700 new troops by the end of fiscal 1997 on Sept. 30.

Yet even though the Air Force, Navy, and Marines are filling or exceeding their current targets, concerns are mounting among some public officials and military officers that all of the services could find it increasingly difficult to meet their recruitment requirements in coming years. Such shortfalls, they say, could impair the nation's military preparedness.

A failure to tackle "recruiting problems will jeopardize the quality of the force and put at risk future combat capability," warns a House National Security Committee report. The report accompanied the House version of the fiscal 1998 defense budget, which includes more advertising dollars for the services.

Ironically, one concern is the nation's booming economy.

In times of high joblessness, the all-volunteer military has an adequate pool for recruits. Much of that pool has evaporated, though, as unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in 23 years. Furthermore, the military is having to compete more fiercely with civilian employers for the most talented high school and college graduates.

OTHER factors include the end of the cold war, experts say. The lack of an identifiable foe capable of threatening the security of the United States has dulled enthusiasm for careers in the armed forces.

Instead, more young people want to attend college to acquire skills increasingly considered necessary for well-salaried jobs in the new high-tech economy.

"We don't have an enemy out there that you can identify," says Alan Gropman, a military historian at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces who studies recruitment issues for the Army. "Most kids who have high school diplomas are thinking about [civilian] careers."

Professor Gropman believes the Air Force, Navy, and Marines will find it easier to fill their recruitment goals than the Army. There is a perception that the Air Force and Navy provide training for technical careers, while the Marines appeal to a narrow segment of young people. But while it is also rapidly adopting advanced technologies, the Army has been unable to shed an image as a service that provides few valuable skills.

"Even though that is not an accurate picture, that is the way it is," says Gropman. "The Army's got a severe problem that the Air Force and the Navy don't have."

Whatever the case, all of the services acknowledge they are having to work harder than ever to persuade young people to sign up.

"We have to actively go out and sell and pursue and talk and find people to join. Only about 10 percent of our recruits actually walk in. We actually do most of our work over the telephone and getting into the high schools," says Col. Dan Rose, deputy chief of staff for Marine Corps recruiting. "The work effort has increased dramatically."

The Marines, he says, are now "taking a very serious look" at reinforcing their recruitment efforts by boosting funds for college tuition and special salary bonuses offered as incentives for signing up.

The Army has already taken such steps. It has also decided that only 90 percent of its annual recruitment target must be high school graduates. The previous number was 95 percent. The remaining 10 percent comprises enlistees who have high school equivalency diplomas and score in the upper percentiles of the Armed Services Aptitude Test.

Army officials insist the reduction in high-school-graduate recruitment will not lower the troops' overall quality. "We are just allowing more people without traditional high school diplomas to enter the service," says Capt. Tim Blair, spokesman for the Army Recruitment Command in Fort Knox, Ky.

But the House National Security Committee is not convinced. Even though none of the other services plan to follow the Army, the committee said it has "deep concerns that the military services are already on the slippery slope of eroding recruit quality."

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