The economy is brisk. The jobless rate is down. Private sector salaries are high. And high school students have plenty of opportunites to go to college -- often for free, thanks to scholarships like Georgia's HOPE.
All good things, right?
Not for military recruiters.
Except for the Marine Corps, the nation's armed forces are struggling to meet enlistment goals, lest personnel shortages affect the military's ability to fulfill its missions.
In fiscal 1998, Navy recruiters signed up 6,892 fewer sailors than they needed. In the first three months of fiscal 1999, the Army already is sorely behind in recruiting -- falling 2,300 recruits short of its goal. At that rate, the Army projects a shortfall of 10,000 soldiers this fiscal year.
The Air Force, which has met or exceeded its yearly recruiting goals since 1979, is 6 percent -- or 656 airmen -- shy of its fiscal 1999 recruitment goal.
To erase the recruiting deficits, the services are marking unprecedented changes in how they entice young men and women to join the military.
Army Secretary Louis Caldera suggested Tuesday that his service should be allowed to enlist more high school dropouts with equvalency diplomas to prevent a large shortfall.
In fiscal 1998, 9.9 percent of Army recruits were high school dropouts with General Educational Development diplomas.
"The Army is an institution that should not write off young people in America who need a second chance," he added at a breakfast with defense reporters. "The military should not be the one that slams the door of opportunity in your face."
The Defense Department currently requires that 90 percent of military recruits have high school diplomas, but the individual services often have set higher standards.
Until recently, the Navy limited its recruitment of dropouts to 5 percent, but this year the Navy will accept up to 10 percent. The change is projected to bring 2,600 more sailors to the Navy.
Chief J. Martin Fucio, public affairs director for Navy Recruiting District Atlanta, which includes recruiting stations in the Augusta area, said the Navy is not lowering its standards because recruits without high school diplomas will be stringently screened.
Only "proven performers" -- dropouts with high scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, good references and sustained job performance -- will be considered.
The Navy also is pouring money into advertising, opening more recruiting stations and assigning some E-4-ranked sailors, who usually are about the same age as potential recruits, as recruiters.
The Navy has increased its maximum college incentive from $30,000 to $50,000. Those who don't want college money can instead opt for a $3,000 enlistment bonus until May.
Already, the changes seem to be working. In the first quarter of 1999 -- from October through December -- the Navy signed up 9,012 new recruits, or 379 more than its goal.
Like the Navy, the Air Force is spending millions on an advertising campaign aimed at enticing young adults to choose military service instead of college or civilian jobs.
This year, the Air Force will spend $54 million on television advertising. Initially, the ads will air during the NCAA men's basketball tournament, when they'll have the potential of reaching 15 million people in the 18-24 age group, The Associated Press reported this month.
"Our challenge is awareness," said Maj. Derek Kaufman, spokesman for the Air Force Recruiting Service located at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.
"Television is one place we need to be now to provide that awareness," he said. "The more people know about the Air Force, the more people will want to be a part of it."
Since October, the Air Force has offered bonuses of up to $9,000 for 115 of 150 enlisted job specialities. Any bonuses more than $1,000 are for recruits who agree to serve a six-year enlistment, Maj. Kaufman said.
In fiscal 1998, only 7.8 percent of recruits signed on for six years, he said, but that number has increased to 40 percent so far in fiscal 1999.
Unlike the Army and Navy, however, the Air Force will not relax its high school graduation requirement, Maj. Kaufman said. Only 1 percent of Air Force recruits can be high school dropouts.
Any change in the graduation requirement would force the Air Force to restructure its technical school program, a costly proposition, the major said. Besides, graduates have a better track record than dropouts, he said.
"There's empirical data ... (that) the people who stick out high school, they have the wherewithal to stick out basic training, too," Maj. Kaufman said.
The same is true in the Navy, where recruits without traditional diplomas are 10 percent more likely to drop out of boot camp than graduates. The service generally loses 14 percent of recruits during the eight-week basic training period, Chief Fucio said.
The fortunes of military recruiters always have been tied to the economy, according to University of Maryland military sociologist David Segal, who has studied teen-agers' propensity to join the military since the advent of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s.
Dr. Segal's research suggests that parental attitudes and family experience with the military also affect enlistment.
High school seniors' interest in the military has waned in the past two decades, a period also marked by a decreasing population of veterans younger than 65.
In 1976, about 58 percent of high school seniors surveyed as part of the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project said they definitely wouldn't join the military.
By 1997, the number of seniors deadset against serving in the military increased to about 72 percent.
Despite these obstacles, there's one branch of the military that is succeeding at recruitment.
The Marine Corps -- the smallest of the armed forces -- has a 25 percent turnover rate every year.
But Marine recruiters had made or exceeded their enlistment goals for the past 43 months.
In the first quarter of fiscal 1999, recruiters had signed up 150 more Marines than projected, while still retaining 95 percent high school graduates.
First Lt. Jeff Sammons, public affairs officer for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command near Washington, attributes the success to the quality of recruiters, the corps' selling points and top Marine leaders' commitment to recruiting.
But the Marine Corps' "brand image" and niche in the military market may be its greatest determinant of recruiting success.
To sell teen-agers on the military, the other services heavily pitch education benefits, technical training and adventure.
While the Marine Corps offers similar opportunities and benefits, its recruiters emphasize things like esprit de corps, challenges, self-discipline, accountability, self-reliance and leadership potential, 1st Lt. Sammons said.
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