The Slumping Economy Boosts Military Recruiting

A tight job market is one factor, but another is the desire to serve.

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Falls Church, Va.—Four friends from the nearby Falls Church High School are piling out of their car to head toward the local Marine Corps recruiting station. They have recently enlisted together as part of the service's "buddy program." Inside, a poster on the wall hints at the Corps's expectations: "We don't accept applications, only commitments."

Sgt. Garrett Jolly, the recruiter here, walks out to greet them. These days, he's seeing more drop-ins like these four friends. In this office, Jolly estimates, traffic has jumped from one recruit walk-in every two weeks to about two per week. "Due to the economy," he observes, "kids have been walking in left and right."

Throughout the country, the economy's rapid decline has been a boon for military recruiters. Studies have shown that military recruitment figures increase when the unemployment rate rises. The latest figures show the Army's best performance in six years, with the service steadily surpassing its recruiting goals since last fall. In January, for instance, the Army set its sights on 9,000 new recruits and brought in 9,658. The rest of the services also have met or exceeded their goals.

The numbers are so good, in fact, that there's talk of scaling back the financial inducements put into effect when recruiters were straining to meet their targets. In a recent hearing, Rep. Susan Davis, the chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, noted that the "recruit quality programs that had been of such great concern to this subcommittee just a few short months ago have virtually evaporated." The brighter picture, the California Democrat added, "has a dark side that cannot be escaped: Budget managers will now begin to stop these programs for savings, and rightly so. Because as recruitment and retention become easier, one must assume it can be done more cost-effectively."

This, however, makes some military personnel specialists nervous. Lt. Gen. Ronald Coleman, the Marine Corps's deputy commandant for manpower, pointed out in the same hearing that the Marines had an "unprecedented" 36 percent retention rate among first-time enlistees. But Coleman added that retaining talent, particularly in key fields, is still not that easy. Some personnel, such as linguists and explosive-ordnance specialists, require more incentives. "I think we fail you if we don't admit that," he said.

Jolly has seen similar trends in his recruiting station. The infantry slots are now closed because they have been so popular this year, but he still needs recruits for more technical fields. And while the economy allows the Corps to raise its standards, Jolly says, recruitment requires long hours: He typically works from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The four Falls Church recruits discuss their reasons for joining; the economy isn't one of them. Ian Freas, a volunteer firefighter, stands on crutches because he hurt his foot when he fell through the floor of a burning building. Undeterred by the intensified fighting in Afghanistan, he says, "I'm looking forward to my deployments." Justin Williams says he turned down a full scholarship to study guitar at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in order to serve his country. "These kids," says Jolly, "just want to do their part."