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Downsized Military Curtails Job Options For Some Graduates

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The drastic downsizing of the U.S. military, combined with higher absolute standards for recruits on tests and other measures, is curtailing job opportunities for thousands of high-school graduates who had looked to the armed forces as an accessible route to advancement.

The decrease in openings, particularly in the Army, will have an especially profound impact on young blacks, a number of observers predict. They note that blacks have joined the military in disproportionate numbers, finding it a relatively color-blind employer to which they are more likely than whites to devote their careers.

The military has also been an important source of educational aid for young people who cannot afford to enter college right after high school.

"I think it's catastrophic for the minority community especially,'' Charlie C. Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, said of the shrinking pool of military jobs.

The armed forces traditionally have been "an avenue of upward mobility for young people from poor backgrounds,'' which also had enough middle-class members to remain attractive, he said.

"An opportunity and a lack of stigma--that's what the Army offered,'' said Mr. Moskos, who has done extensive research on the armed forces.

Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education, said he welcomed the decision to contract the size of the military, but he expressed concern about the job losses coming in "the most equal-opportunity employer.''

The military "has been a very effective alternative employment for tens of thousands of minorities who otherwise would be unemployed,'' said Mr. Wilson, who is a former member of the Navy Recruitment Command's education action council.

Tougher Standards

Because of the smaller number of total positions in the post-Cold War military, and a greater need for recruits who have the ability to handle increasingly sophisticated technology, the military is placing heavier emphasis on the educational qualifications of its applicants.

While in years past the military was open to those without a high-school diploma who may have been functionally illiterate or have had an arrest record, standards have become progressively tougher.

A high-school diploma is now expected for entrance into the armed forces--unless, in some cases, a recruit has a General Educational Development diploma and a minimum number of college credits--and a recruit almost certainly must have a spotless legal record.

In addition, the military increasingly can only accept those who score at or above the 50th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, or A.F.Q.T., of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, an aptitude test often given in high schools.

100,000 Drop Since 1987

The military's need for new recruits has been reduced "by a considerable margin'' in recent years, said Lieut. Col. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman.

In 1987, total "accessions''--the term used by the Pentagon--to all branches of the military totaled more than 316,000 people. The estimate for 1992 is slightly over 216,000, according to Defense Department statistics.

In the Army alone, new active-service accessions of 17- to 24-year-olds have dropped by more than half since 1980, from 173,188 then to 78,243 in 1991, according to Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Sheridan, Ill.

African Americans make up 29 percent of all Army personnel and 32 percent of enlisted ranks--their largest representation in any military branch.

'High-Quality Accessions'

Even with fewer openings to fill, field recruiters said in interviews that they had not changed their on-campus recruitment practices, because of the continuing need to seek out high-quality enlistees.

Mr. Smith of the Army said his recruiters still have a "strong presence'' in schools. "We've always been trying to reach the students who excel,'' he said.

The percentage of all new armed-forces recruits with a high-school diploma, not counting the G.E.D., stood at 99 percent for the first half of the current fiscal year, Defense Department statistics show. That figure is up 2 percentage points over the same period a year ago; it has increased from 91 percent in the same period of fiscal year 1990. A decade before, the figure stood at 54 percent, an Army spokesman said.

In addition, the percentage of what the Defense Department calls "high-quality accessions''--those who have a diploma and scored in the top half on the A.F.Q.T.--rose from 59 percent in the first half of fiscal year 1990 to 71 percent in the same period of fiscal 1991. For the same October-to-March period in the current fiscal year, the figure stands at 76 percent.

"The quality is definitely going up,'' Colonel Hart, the Pentagon spokesman said, adding: "Does that leave some people out on the other end? Yes, I'm afraid it does.''

For example, Army recruits who ranked in the lowest acceptable category on the A.F.Q.T.--with scores of 26 to 30 on the 100-point test--shrank from 57 percent in 1980 to 0.9 percent in 1991, recruiting statistics show.

Having a high-school diploma and a strong score on the armed-forces aptitude test are good predictors of success in the military, officials said.

"We have found those people who have high-school diplomas drop out of the military at a much lower rate'' than those who do not, Colonel Hart said.

Similarly, said ETC Terry W. Woods, the recruiter-in-charge at the Shreveport (La.) Navy Recruiting Station, "We found a direct correlation between how well people score on the test and how well they do in the Navy.''

Advice From Recruiters

It is Mr. Woods and others like him who are the gatekeepers when it comes to being more selective about recruits.

At the Army recruiting station in Florence, Ala., Sgt. 1st Class Theodore Waters, the station commander, said his 30-day May recruiting quota or "mission'' was fairly typical: eight recruits, five of whom must have scored 50 or higher on the A.F.Q.T.

Three to five years ago, Sergeant Waters said, his recruiters would have looked for the same number of recruits scoring at or above the 50-point level. But, he said, they also would have taken more people total--perhaps 10 or 12 in a month--including some who scored in the 26-to-30-point range.

Even though the Navy has not experienced the same downsizing as the Army, it too has been raising its standards.

Mr. Woods said the Navy now wants to see at least a score of 50 on the A.F.Q.T., up from 31 just last fall.

"We have quite a few individuals who have to take the test over,'' said Mr. Woods, noting that the test is written at a 9th-grade level and that some students have trouble scoring above the 20's.

The population of Mr. Woods's recruiting area is about 55 percent to 60 percent black, with the rest white, he said.

Especially because of Shreveport's depressed economy, Mr. Woods said, he does not like to deny a place in the military--a job--to someone who wants one.

So he and his recruiters will advise students on how to improve their scores on the A.F.Q.T., Mr. Woods said. In addition, he said, his Navy recruiters try to refer disappointed potential recruits to an Army recruiter if the local Army station is accepting enlistees that month with a lower A.F.Q.T. score.

Taking Tougher Courses

The military's heightened selectivity, meanwhile, may be having a beneficial effect on students' academic choices, school counselors say.

At McKeesport (Pa.) Area High School, near Pittsburgh, students who are interested in the military are more likely now to stay in school to try to get their diplomas, said Judith Bookhamer, a counselor at the school for 11 years.

Such students are also taking more rigorous mathematics courses, she said. They are steering away from fundamental or general math toward algebra, with an eye to scoring well on the A.F.Q.T., she said.

About 5 percent of McKeesport High's graduating seniors, who are about 22 percent minority and come from largely lower-middle-class families, go straight into the military, Ms. Bookhamer said.

"I think it's been a positive change,'' she said of the military's higher standards, "because now I think [schools and the military are] working together for the common goal'' of a strong education for young people.

For students at Chaffey High School in Ontario, Calif., decisions about whether to pursue a military career "are made much earlier''--often as soon as the 9th grade--because of the military's greater selectivity, according to Bob Godinez, a counselor there.

In his school, which is 42 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black, Mr. Godinez said he has not seen minority-group students miss out on military opportunities because of the tighter standards.

Students at Chaffey take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery by the 10th grade, allowing plenty of time to improve a deficient score, Mr. Godinez said.

'Affects All Walks of Life'

The armed forces are still recruiting minority-group members, including blacks, in proportions comparable to the past, Colonel Hart of the Defense Department said.

The downsizing and greater selectivity "affect all walks of life,'' Colonel Hart said.

But he acknowledged that minority enlistment "has dropped a bit in the last couple of years.''

In the Army, blacks made up 28.6 percent of accessions in 1980, 25.3 percent in 1990, and 20.5 percent last year, statistics show.

Mr. Moskos of Northwestern University sees the increasing importance of high A.F.Q.T. scores in the recruitment process as a formidable barrier to many blacks.

Even blacks who hold high-school diplomas, he said, generally score below white diploma-holders on the test, because blacks nationally are more likely to attend weak schools.

Figures provided by Sergeant Waters, the Florence, Ala., recruiter, show sizable differences in A.F.Q.T. scores by race.

National averages across the four military services, Sergeant Waters said, show that in 1990, 75.1 percent of whites scored in the top half on the A.F.Q.T., while just 17.4 percent of blacks did so.

Last year, the percentage of whites scoring at 50 or above on the test was slightly higher--76.9 percent--and that of blacks slightly lower--15.3 percent, Sergeant Waters said.

Broader Consequences

The reduction in armed-forces jobs, Mr. Wilson of the American Council on Education suggested, will have a more significant long-term effect on blacks because minorities are more likely than whites to make a career of the military.

Sixty-two percent of the blacks in the Army re-enlist, compared with 38 percent of the whites, Mr. Wilson said, citing data from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

Blacks' greater long-term commitment occurs in part, Mr. Wilson said, because blacks--especially those with just a high-school education--view their prospects in the military as far better than in the civilian world.

Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Moskos warned of the possible broader ramifications of fewer opportunities in the military.

The leaner armed forces, Mr. Moskos predicted, will be a "contributing factor in the growth of the underclass'' in the United States.

Mr. Wilson added: "I'm not sure what these young people are going to do but enter the marginal economy or the drug economy.''

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