Recruiting Woes


Friday’s Wall Street Journal had an alarming story on the number of American youth who are simply not qualified to enlist in the services.

As a recruiter in the booming 1990s, the Army (especially in the manufacturing areas of the midwest) was often seen by young people and their parents as an employer of last resort. I can tell you, more than a few were crushed to learn, upon turning to that last resort, that the institution they had held in mild contempt had no use for them when they did come calling.

There is a bare minimum statutory level of qualification set by Congress for enlistment. But each of the services also sets minimums via their own respective regulations. Back in my day, AR601-210 was the regulation concerning active and reserve component Army enlistments. Regulations can, and often are changed.

For instance, AR601-210 might change as often as monthly, and certainly every quarter there would be an update. Also, the regulation would reserve to the Commanding General of US Army Recruiting Command authority to set and change certain minimum characteristics for eligibility, such as how many people with a GED in lieu of a high school diploma would be permitted to enlist.

You may recall that back in 2006, at the height of the fighting in Iraq, the Army was struggling to make the enlistment numbers it needed. And not surprisingly, it lowered the standards of who it would allow in. Not terribly much lower. Just a little bit. Certainly nothing like McNamara’s Army of 100,000. But still, the erosion in standards was seen by many to lead to large numbers of troops lacking the discipline and qualities that earlier enlistees had possessed.

With the end of major US presence in Iraq, the coming withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, and the downsizing of the military due to budget constraints, the numbers of recruits needed annually for all the services has gone down considerably. And as a result, not surprisingly, the services have reacted by raising the standards for enlistment.

One problem is, the very same high quality people that the Army and other services want to enlist are the very same people that employers and colleges want so badly.  Another is that the services have standards in place that the competition simply doesn’t have to concern itself with.  Very few insurance salesmen have to display an ability to perform sit-ups, push-ups, and a two-mile run in a given time. 

Not only are the services struggling to find people that have a willingness or propensity to join. They’re struggling to find people that can meet the big three qualification standards- 1. Mental, 2. Physical, and 3. Moral.

The WSJ article has the painful statistic:

The military services don’t keep figures on how many people they turn away. But the Defense Department estimates 71% of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. would fail to qualify to enlist in the military if they tried, a figure that doesn’t even include those turned away for tattoos or other cosmetic issues. Meanwhile, only about 1% of youths are both “eligible and inclined to have a conversation with us” about military service, according to Major Gen. Allen Batschelet, commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

The biggest problem is, of course, fat people. We as a nation are just a heck of a lot fatter than we used to be.  I’m not one for encouraging the federal government (or anyone else) to impose corrections upon this, but the fact is, a lot of kids are fat.  We simply have to recognize that. Some folks who are highly motivated to enlist can and will lose sufficient weight to enlist. Most will not.

A further cause for concern:

About a quarter of high-school graduates also can’t pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures math and reading skills, Gen. Youngman said. “They aren’t educationally qualified to join the military in any capacity, not just the high-tech jobs,” he said.

In most of the schools I recruited in, if a student had a reasonable GPA in class, I was confident they would score well on the ASVAB test. I was appalled to learn that in other schools, those schools with virtually all African American enrollment, that even students with excellent grade point averages were quite likely to be either functionally illiterate, or only marginally literate. There’s nothing like telling someone who recently graduated high school with honors that they couldn’t even score above the 32nd percentile on their second try on a test.

As for the moral qualification for enlistment, I have a couple thoughts, though not necessarily supported by more than my gut instinct. First, when you discuss waivers for past criminal activity by an enlistment prospect, one thing you’ll often here is the large numbers of felony waivers granted. Well, back in 2007 or so, there were a disturbingly large number. But that isn’t as cut and dried as you might think. First, large numbers of waivers for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In some states, that’s either a misdemeanor or even a simple citation. So while our prospect and the jurisdiction in which he was arrested might not think it a major issue, for the Army, any drug related offense is automatically considered to be a felony offense. As such, our prospect would be required to apply for a waiver for enlistment. That waiver is by no means automatic. The recruiting battalion commander, upon review of the waiver request (with quite a bit of supporting documentation) might grant it, or request a personal interview with the prospect to judge for himself the prospect’s level of motivation and sincerity, or request further evidence (such as character references from respected members of the community) or he might simply deny the waiver.

Another thing regarding moral issues. Our notional prospect cannot enlist with any form of all of civil restraint. That is, he cannot have so much as an outstanding parking ticket. He may not be on parole, probation, conditional release, diversion or any of the other terms used to describe someone who is in any way still subject to actions by the police or courts. And the should a court offer any version of “join the Army or go to jail” in any way,shape or form, it is an automatic, non-waiverable, non-appealable permanent bar to enlistment. You’re done. Through. Put a fork in ‘em.  The point being that any prospect who has ever had any interaction with the police has to be free and clear of any debt to society.

A last bit on moral issues, that is, prospects for enlistment who have been arrested. Again, just a gut feeling, personal impression. Many police forces now aggressively pursue charges for very minor issues that in years past would have seen little more than either a dressing down, or a call to the parents. That’s not just because police like to do that. Part of it is known as “holding paper.” That is, when a serial offender finally commits a serious crime, the police don’t want him in front of a judge pleading for leniency because he is a first time offender. If the police can point to a paper trail of multiple, escalating offenses, the judge is far more likely to impose a realistic sentence. Now, most of our young potential prospects, having been cited for disturbing the peace, or what have you, will straighten up and stay on the straight and narrow. And as long as they are not further entangled in the court system, that’s OK as far as the Army is concerned. But it doesn’t take many incidents for a young man or woman to find themselves so enmeshed in the criminal court system that they are unqualified for enlistment.

Let me revisit this for a moment: “Meanwhile, only about 1% of youths are both “eligible and inclined to have a conversation with us” about military service.”

You’ve heard the US military described as an All Volunteer Force ever since the draft was ended. Recruiters know better. It’s an All-Recruited Force.  With only a minority of the population qualified, and and even smaller segment of that pool even willing to consider military service, recruiters from all branches have to work extraordinarily hard to find the manpower to field our nation’s great services.

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4 responses to “Recruiting Woes

  1. Weathtd

    I was on recruiting duty in NJ in mid ’80s. Had a recent BS grad from Rutgers that scored a “4” on the ASVAB. Physically threw him out of the office. See all kinds walk in and hear all kinds of responses while prospecting. It was a real enlightening time going to recruiting after being on drill sgt status.

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  2. ultimaratioregis

    “You’ve heard the US military described as an All Volunteer Force ever since the draft was ended. Recruiters know better. It’s an All-Recruited Force.”

    Amen. Recruiting Station OpsO was the only assignment I categorically refused in 28 years in the Corps. I told my ground monitor that I would resign my commission as a 1stLt rather than do that. He now works at Quantico and he and I had a chuckle about that. He remembered, 25 years later.

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