Even in tough times, one employer is always hiring: the United States armed forces. "National defense is not cyclical," said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accession policy. "Regardless of what the level of economic activity is, the military still recruits roughly the same amount -- about 300,000 young men and women each year for the active and Reserve forces."
With civilian jobs scarce and unemployment high, 2009 was a banner year for military recruiting. To start with, all four services met or exceeded their numerical goals for the fiscal year that ended on September 30, the Army by an unprecedented 7.8 percent -- or more than 5,000 recruits beyond its target -- a dramatic turnaround from an 8.3 percent shortfall in 2005. More impressive still, the proportion of recruits who had high school diplomas and above-average scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test -- a combination that officially certifies them as "high-quality" recruits -- was 64 percent, the highest in four years. Even the Army, historically the least well educated service, signed up more than 50 percent "high-quality" recruits for the first time since 2005. That achievement reversed a trend of decreasing quality, in which the Army accepted increasing numbers of high school dropouts, GED-holders, and high school graduates who either scored below average on the qualification test or required waivers for poor physical fitness or criminal records.
Those unhappy Army-wide statistics had meant trouble in units bound for the war zones in the past few years. "We have seen more issues with the soldiers coming in," said Lt. Col. Kirk Whitson, who assumed command of a logistics battalion of the 101st Airborne Division in 2007 -- when "high-quality" recruits fell to 44 percent of the Army's total. He took the battalion to Afghanistan in 2008. "I didn't have problems with the two-time deployers [getting worn out], I didn't have issues with the guys and gals that had been doing it for 10 or more years and understood the way of life.... My problems came with the brand-new soldiers": drug use, poor physical fitness, and psychiatric problems.
That said, although standards eroded, they never collapsed to the levels of the "hollow Army" of the 1970s and 1980s. As late as 1986, some units still quarantined problem soldiers in "drug platoons," recalled Whitson, who entered the Army that year.
"In the mid-1980s, you could do a test and conceivably 35 to 40 percent of your unit could come up testing positive," said Les McFarling, a civilian who heads the Army's substance-abuse program. "We were down at around 1 percent before the war.... [Now], our active-duty positive rate is about 2.3, 2.4 percent."
When it comes to the health of military recruiting, the Army is the service to watch, because it has both the largest demand for recruits and, to be frank, the toughest sell. The Navy can offer the romance of the sea, while the Air Force is synonymous with high-tech wizardry and the Marine Corps with machismo, but the Army has never entirely shed its draft-era reputation as the bureaucratic meat grinder of America's underprivileged.
In truth, the Army has suffered the lion's share of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq (although the death toll thus far is less than 10 percent of the Vietnam War's). It is significant that the Army's recruiting successes in fiscal 2008 and 2009 coincide with two years of declining death tolls in the two wars after the bloodiest year so far: 2007. "It's very hard to accurately quantify the effect" of the casualty rate on recruitment, Gilroy said, but various studies estimate that the war depressed the recruitment anywhere from 12 to 33 percent of normal.
Casualties are not the sole factor in the equation. The quality of recruits rose in all of the services in the three fiscal years immediately after 9/11, even though casualties increased as well. Surging patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks was one reason. Another was rising unemployment.
"We can measure the impact of unemployment," Gilroy said. "We can say, for example, that a 10 percent change in the unemployment rate" -- going from 9.0 percent to 9.9 percent, for instance -- "will result in a 2-[to]-4-percent increase in high-quality enlistments." (Quality is more telling than quantity because, except for the rare periods of recruiting shortfalls, such as 2005, the military always reaches its quantitative targets somehow, if necessary by accepting a larger number of less-well-educated recruits.) The military is hardly rooting for a recession -- even in purely cynical terms, declining tax revenues put pressure on the Pentagon's budget -- but recruiters can certainly see the silver lining.
When and if the economy recovers, military policy makers have several well-oiled levers to pull to increase recruiting. They include increased funding for sign-up bonuses and for advertising and, most important of all, for the number of service members assigned to be recruiters. Historically, Gilroy said, "a 10 percent change in the number of recruiters will result in... a 4-[to]-6 percent change in the percentage of high-quality recruits." The services' worst years in recent times resulted not merely from rising civilian employment but from overconfident policy makers having shorted the recruiter corps. "So often, we have taken it for granted and under-resourced recruiting after periods of success," Gilroy said. "When the economy improves, the services need to be prepared."
The temptation to economize on recruiting is real. A protracted recession pressures the White House and Congress to slow the growth in military spending. A protracted war pressures the Pentagon to move funds to, among other things, combat operations and weapons purchases. Yet the need for recruits is only going to grow. The Army has already increased its total active-duty strength from a low of 492,728 in the nadir year of 2005 to 556,682 as of November 2009, and planners are seriously discussing further growth. The Army will build new units around the cadre of combat-experienced soldiers, but it will need new recruits to fill out that structure.
Personnel policy makers such as Gilroy can adjust a host of dials to fine-tune recruiting -- if they have the money. But the two biggest factors are beyond anyone's control: the economy and the war. If the civilian employment picture brightens, or casualty rates in Afghanistan and Iraq worsen, today's overflowing pool of highly qualified recruits could dry up in a hurry.
This article appears in the January 23, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.