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Downturns make work easier for military recruiters

Updated: 2011-03-03T19:24:17Z

By SCOTT CANON

The Kansas City Star

A bad economy means a better U.S. Army.

Since this country ended the draft in 1973 there has been one constant: Boom times are tough for military recruiters, and recessions put the Army in a buyer’s market.

No doubt, say those who study the complex issue of military recruitment, the reasons that young men and women decide to don uniforms are myriad. A way to pay for college, to learn a trade. A route to discipline, or to follow the route paved by a father or sister. To avenge 9/11, to test one’s mettle, to serve something bigger than one’s self.

“Maybe they want the adventure. Most people also care deeply about the conditions of service,” said Cindy Williams, a defense analyst and personnel expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But every individual who joins the military joins for their own unique blend of reasons.”

Still, in the aggregate, you can’t discount two gigantic factors: the danger perceived by potential recruits and their families; and what sort of civilian options are out there.

“Their other opportunities have shrunk,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist specializing in manpower for the Rand Corp. “So they begin to think about signing up.”

Even the Army estimates that historically a 1 percent uptick in civilian unemployment yields a 0.6 percent increase in Army recruiting. Indeed, the Army, Air Force and Navy all exceeded both their retention goals for current troops and their recruiting goals for incoming service members over the summer.

Typically the Army — which must fill far more positions and generally sees its forces more commonly put in harm’s way — struggles more than the other branches to fill its ranks.

At the height of the Iraq war, and after the economy rebounded after Sept. 11, 2001, the Army made its goals by repeatedly lowering its standards. That meant more troops who lacked high school diplomas, with minor criminal records or who couldn’t meet the usual weight and fitness standards.

The Army countered by sending more recruiters across the country and ratcheting up signing bonuses.

But with the United States now mostly withdrawn from Iraq and with the Afghan conflict drawing less attention, the economy’s woes have led more young people to recruiting offices.

“It’s very, very cyclic based on the economy,” said MIT’s Williams. “Right now it’s harder to get jobs on the outside.”

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