After banner year for recruiting, military leaders uneasy about future

Friday - 1/17/2014, 4:19am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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When it comes to recruiting, the military services have had it pretty good over the past few years. A sour private sector economy has meant each service has been able to consistently meet its recruiting goals and keep standards high with relatively little effort. But the services now are watching for early signs of trouble.

Fiscal 2013 in particular was a blockbuster year, officials say. With the exception of the Army Reserve and Army National Guard, each active duty and reserve component met or exceeded its goals.

DoD says it brought on board the highest quality group of new military members ever, both in terms of test scores and in education. The department's current measure of success is to have 90 percent of new recruits enter active duty with a high school diploma. Last year, the figure was 99.6 percent.

But military officials say their eyes are wide open to the fact that the favorable recruiting environment won't be around forever. The factors that make it favorable are changing; mainly the youth unemployment rate, which dropped to 13.5 percent in December.

"A weak economy in recent years, coupled with the talented and adequately- resourced recruiting force produced the highest quality recruits in Air Force history," Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, the director of force management policy for the Air Force, told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday. "However, we recognize this trend will be unsustainable as the economy continues to improve and competition to draw recruits from the small, qualified talent pool, who are alarmingly less inclined to choose military service as a career, increases dramatically."

Trouble ahead?

None of the military services see any immediate signs that recruiting will get much harder in 2014, but they are seeing what could be some leading indicators of difficulties in successive years.

For example, fewer soldiers are entering the Army through the delayed entry program, an avenue in which new enlistees can commit to serve, but don't enter boot camp right away.

"We see that as kind of a canary in the coal mine in terms of warning about a tough environment ahead," said Maj. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army's director of military personnel management. "If you were to go back in time about a year ago, we would have had almost half our mission in the delayed entry program. If you look at it now, it's about a third. So that's one of the things we're looking at."

In the Navy, while new recruits' test scores still are mostly top-notch, they're beginning to dip compared with the past few years, said Rear Adm. Annie Andrews, the commander of Navy Recruiting Command.

"Last year saw a slight decline in recruit quality, which, while still well-above DOD and Navy standards, bears watching for leading indicators," she said.

The military's recruiting chiefs also are concerned about the impacts of sequestration to their missions. The fertile ground for new recruits since the beginning of the great recession has let them do their jobs without plowing huge amounts of money into funding recruiters and paying for expensive advertising and marketing campaigns. As those demands increase, it's unclear whether the budgetary resources will be there to support them.

"In general, the pace of economic growth, coupled with high unemployment has contributed to a favorable recruiting market, permitting a proportional reduction in recruiting resources. As the economy continues to improve and the recruiting environment becomes more challenging, we must continue to adequately source recruiting efforts to continue meeting accession goals," Andrews said. "And as private sector career opportunities increase, use of incentives such as enlistment bonuses will help attract recruits with the characteristics necessary for Navy service as a means of getting the right sailor with the right skills to the right place at the right time."

Fewer see military as a good choice

Military recruiters also need to contend with some structural challenges in the population of potential recruits, many of which have been papered over by the recent economic downturn. About 75 percent of U.S. 18- to 24-year-olds are not even eligible to enlist in the military because of health issues, weight problems, criminal histories or other factors.

DoD's market research is showing that fewer and fewer young people see military service as a desirable choice.

In 2004, data from the Pentagon's Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies program found that 63 percent of DoD's target market thought the military offered "an attractive lifestyle." Last year's survey data showed that figure had dropped to 40 percent.

Likewise, the number of people in their teens and 20s who thought the military would help them earn money for college dropped by almost 20 percent over the same period.

"There are 30-some million 17- to 24-year-olds out there, but by the time you get all the way down to those that are qualified, you're down to less than a million young Americans," said Maj. Gen. Mark Brilakis, the commander of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. "That's an area we like to work in, but we also have work in that area of people who are qualified but don't necessarily have a propensity to serve. How do we get in and show them the value of service? That's one of the things that's very difficult for us right now."

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