Hard times are good times for Uncle Sam to hire

TUCSON, Ariz. - When he couldn't even find work flipping burgers, Tommy Martin, a teenager, figured it was time for drastic action.

 

So he joined the Army.

"I was trying to find a job, but it's almost impossible right now," said Martin, 19, of Sierra Vista.

"I applied to five different places, and no callbacks, nothing. And when you call them, they don't really say much.

"Even at fast-food restaurants, it's hard to get hired. I applied to Jack in the Box and couldn't get a callback. And I have experience — I used to work at McDonald's."

But even in tough times, Uncle Sam is hiring.

The recession has been a boon for Army recruiters, who have seen better results in recent months than they have in years.

Martin, who plans to become a military police officer, is one of many southern Arizonans looking at enlistment in the absence of other job options.

Tucson's Army recruiting company has exceeded its goal of about 55 new soldiers a month every month since last fall, said 1st Sgt. Brian Homme, who oversees 50-plus recruiters covering southern Arizona, Casa Grande and Silver City, N.M.

That's a turnaround from the last two fiscal years, when the company missed its annual quotas. It was 62 recruits short for 2007 and 63 short in 2008.

Some of the recent boost in local numbers is likely because staffing is back at full strength after a recruiter shortage last year, Homme said.

Still, there's little doubt that the weak economy is pushing more locals to consider the military as the means to a steady paycheck.

"We really started to notice it this year," said Homme, 38.

"On Jan. 5, our first day back after holiday vacation, almost every one of our recruiting stations saw a significant number of walk-ins compared to previous months."

The trend is taking place nationwide in the Army, America's largest service and biggest source of combat troops.

"We have exceeded our goals every month so far this fiscal year," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command. The service's first-quarter results were the best since late 2003 — the year the Iraq war began.

Other military services are doing well, too. All active duty and Reserve components met or exceeded their recruiting goals last month, a switch from recent years when the National Guard and some other Reserve components often came up short in monthly tallies.

Smith said it's not just the quantity of recruits that has increased, but the quality.

The Army is seeing a surge in its most-coveted applicants: high school graduates with no health or legal problems who score well on military aptitude tests. Historically, this pool of recruits grows as the unemployment rate rises, Smith said.

Arizona's unemployment rate hit 7.4 percent last month, a substantial jump from the 4.5 percent rate in February 2008. In Pima County, last month's rate was 6.6 percent, compared to 4.1 percent in February last year.

Staff Sgt. Dustin Olverson, a 32-year-old Iraq war veteran who now is an Army recruiter in Sierra Vista, said parents of new recruits still worry about the possibility their offspring will be sent to war.

But these days more are willing to listen to what the Army can offer their sons and daughters, such as tuition assistance and enlistment bonuses, which can run up to $40,000 for the most-sought-after applicants.

In Tucson, many of the newly interested are recent high school or college grads who hit brick walls when searching for work.

Devin Shaffier, 17, can rattle off a list of companies he recently applied to without luck: "Target, Albertsons, Safeway, Little Caesars, Taco Bell and two Circle Ks."

Shaffier said his entire family is suffering through the recession, and he aims to help them by sending home much of his military paycheck.

A 2008 graduate of Compass High School, Shaffier worked in a local machine shop during school — the same shop where his stepdad also worked, making parts for Halliburton's oil — drilling rigs. When the firm downsized, he said, both lost their jobs and neither has been able to find work.

Their family of five — Shaffier has brothers ages 8 and 12 — now scrapes by on government aid and his mother's $10-an-hour income as a caregiver at a retirement home. Soldiers fresh out of boot camp earn $1,400 a month, and their food and housing costs are covered by the Army.

"It's devastating to see my parents struggle like this," Shaffier said. By becoming an Army aviation mechanic, "I can help them, and come out of it with a great career and a great education."

Roger Conant, 22, already has an education, but it hasn't helped him find work. He's about to graduate from the University of Arizona with a degree in economics. After that, he'll leave for basic military training.

"I put out so many resumes and didn't receive any callbacks," Conant said of his decision to enlist. "A lot of my fellow UA students are in the same situation. They can't find jobs in their fields."

Though he could qualify to be an officer with his university degree, Conant chose to sign on as an infantryman "for experience," he said. He now plans to make the Army his career, and hopes to become an officer eventually.

Irving Ruelas, 21, who attended Santa Rita High School, said he always ignored the military recruiters who visited campus.

His tune changed, he said, when he was laid off by Citibank in July and applied for more than a dozen jobs unsuccessfully.

Now he's planning to enlist in the infantry.

"The Army," he said, "has given me some hope."

 

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