The pay's not fabulous. The hours are long. Management? A lot of yelling. But despite all these drawbacks, one of the most traditional employers in America - the military - is experiencing a surge in recruits.
As they near the end of their year 2000 recruiting season, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are all on pace to meet their congressionally mandated enlistment goals - the first time that has happened in three years.
There's not a single main reason for the turnaround. Today's potential soldier is likely to be signed up with the help of streaming video, fancy graphics, and even an online chat with a cyberrecruiter. Not to mention a cash bonus and a salary that beats minimum wage.
Whether the military has entered a new era of easier recruiting remains to be seen. But considering the competition from the hot civilian economy, and the demands placed on today's US forces, officials welcome all the new help they can get.
The new recruiting success is "a synergistic effect of many different programs," says Army Maj. Gen. Evan Gaddis. "The Army gave us the resources and backing that we needed, and ... we're reconnecting with America." The Marine Corps, the smallest of America's fighting forces, has always had an easier recruiting task than its fellow services. The Marine image of a proud, elite fighting force has long resonated well with young people predisposed to a military career.
But lately there is good news on recruiting for the Army, Air Force, and Navy, too.
*The Army projects that it will enlist 80,000 recruits by the end of fiscal year 2000, up from 68,000 in 1999 and well above its target of 74,000. It has employed some 200 recruiters who work online, in chat rooms, and it has raised the ceiling for enlistment bonuses, from $12,000 to $20,000. The new "College First" program allows potential students to enlist, then receive a stipend while they go to college for two years, then begin service.
*After falling 1,700 recruits short last year, the Air Force, which traditionally does not have recruiting problems, met its year 2000 goal of 34,000 enlistees with two months left in the fiscal year. The Air Force is recruiting aggressively on the Internet, says Sgt. Tom Clement. Its Web site gets 300,000 visitors a month.
From 1998 to 1999 it increased advertising spending from about $12.3 million to $56.8 million. It has also given generous bonuses, but in recent years have given them based on longer-term commitments.
*The Navy, which missed its target in 1998, has since almost doubled its number of recruiters and launched local television advertising campaigns. It has also introduced seasonal enlistment bonuses, which help it get more recruits during the difficult period between February and May. It too chalks up some of its success to the Internet, having more than doubled its Web-generated leads in the past year.
"It just goes to show you, young people are checking us out online first before going to a recruiter," says Navy Lt. Steve Zipp.
The turnaround in recruiting comes after years of struggle among all the forces except the Marines. Pentagon officials and lawmakers had begun to warn that the low numbers could affect the military's overall readiness at a time when large numbers of troops are deployed overseas.
Yet it remains to be seen if the Army, Navy, and Air Force can sustain their improved numbers, which come at a much greater monetary cost.
For one, joining the armed services continues to appeal primarily to a small percentage of the population, mostly from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, fewer and fewer public officials are veterans, and that sets the tone for the future, analysts say.
"The long-term problem remains of, 'How are you going to [attract] the middle class,' " says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Furthermore, there are questions as to how the military has earned its higher year 2000 numbers - and whether these recruits will stay in an era when retention has been as challenging as recruiting.
"The services ... are not developing tools needed to measure the long-term success of their efforts, thus limiting their ability to judge the effectiveness of those efforts in reducing attrition," says a recent report from the independent General Accounting Office.
"It's too soon to tell whether this marks a real turning point," agrees Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University.
"The problem is one that has many dimensions. To believe that pay raises, bonuses, and more advertising ... is going to make for long-term [recruiting] viability... that's an illusion," he contends.
Where the cold war rallying recruit under the banner of fighting communism, today's soldier faces a career of repeated, small-scale missions. That's not only makes it harder to lure recruits, but can sap morale, and deter retention.
"The problem is not going to Kosovo one time," he says, but having to go "back a second or third time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society