Cooling economy doesn't help military recruiting much

America's hot economy may be cooling, but the recruiting environment is still tough and will stay that way through the decade, according to Vice Adm. Pat Tracey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy.

Despite fierce competition, Defense still attracts more than 300,000 well-qualified young men and women each year. "The services all meet the quality standards of high school graduate status and upper mental groups," Tracey said.

She said the department expects to meet end-strength figures for all components except the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. There is also some concern about end-strength for the Naval Reserve.

Tracey said three factors combine to make recruiting tough. Ironically, all three factors are good for the country "and we shouldn't wish it to be otherwise--but it certainly makes recruiting a little bit more difficult than it has been," she said.

First, unemployment is low, though increasing of late. Traditionally, the military has had a hard time getting recruits during boom times. "Youngsters of the caliber we are looking for have lots of other options," she said.

Second, the United States is at peace. "That's something the military should take great credit for. We won the Cold War, and as a consequence people don't feel threatened as they had in the past," she said. At the same time, the need for an armed force is less clear. "It's harder for people to understand why military service matters right now."

Finally, 80 percent of high school graduates indicate a desire to go to college and two-thirds do enroll.

"Youngsters know the lifetime earnings of college graduates are much higher than those of high school students," she said. "We see colleges as our biggest competition." The military knows how to recruit high-quality people from high schools, but recruiting from colleges is a learning experience, Tracey said.

Defense also is going to have to go after those young people who start college, but who don't finish for one reason or another, she said.

"The enrollment rate has climbed very rapidly over the last 10 years, but the graduation rate ... has not," she said. "A high percentage of youngsters start college and can't quite stay on track to finish it." There may be ways Defense can work with colleges and universities to get the word of Defense opportunities to those students.

"Recruiting a large percentage of our initial enlistment population from the college dropout market will also be a bit of a concern because we're talking about high-quality kids who disappointed themselves in their first adult choice," she said. "We need to have thought through how to deal with them. We need to be prepared in both initial entry training and the technical schools to restore a sense of self-confidence."

Tracey mentioned other resources Defense is using to good effect to attract quality recruits. Education programs and enlistment bonuses for certain specialties continue to be among the programs the services use to attract recruits. In addition, Defense and the services are spending more on advertising.

They are also changing how they advertise, such as targeting advertising to specific areas and increasing their use of the Internet as a vehicle for advertising. Perhaps most importantly, service and joint advertising has begun to emphasize the intrinsic value of military service rather than the benefits.

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