Fewer Grads Answer Uncle Sam’s Call

By Julie Blair — July 14, 1999 8 min read
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Staff Sgt. Paul N. Jackson can offer the world to high school graduates who join the U.S. Army, but these days he rarely has takers.

Students are saying no to international travel, no to money for college, and no to the promise of a good job faster than a soldier can drop and do 50 push-ups. They usually aren’t swayed by appeals to their sense of patriotism, and even the prospects of helicopter rides and cliff climbs can’t pique much interest in military service.

“I make 35 calls an hour,” said Sgt. Jackson, an affable infantryman turned recruiter who works out of an Army recruiting station here. “I get lucky if I can get one appointment.”

The story is a familiar one at his station and around the country at other Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine recruiting posts, said Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesman. For the second year in a row, the military is struggling to fill the enlisted ranks with qualified young men and women.

“We have the lowest unemployment we’ve had in 30 years, and there is a lot of competition for the quality people we want,” Col. Begines said. “This recruiting market has developed into the most difficult one on record.”

The Army, which makes up 45 percent of America’s military forces, missed its goal of 74,500 recruits by 7,639 during the period from last October to March, and the Air Force fell short of its 34,100 mark by 2,578 recruits. The Marines and the Navy met their respective goals of 34,363 and 34,100.

Flagging enlistment is the result of several factors, most notably a surging economy that has produced a plethora of better-paying jobs in the civilian world, Col. Begines said.

Marcy Mendoza, 18, is a case in point. She was thinking about joining the Air Force’s military police until she began talking to friends who had already enlisted.

“Everyone said that you can make more money outside the military,” Ms. Mendoza said. “If you want to get a raise you have to get to a higher rank, but you could be there for two years before you get that rank.”

A graduate of Valley Center High School outside of Wichita, Ms. Mendoza is now enrolled at Wichita State University, where she still aspires to work in the criminal-justice field.

Career Moves

The Wichita West recruiting station, located in a strip mall near a Supercuts hair salon and a beauty-supply store, is supposed to be a “high production” office, said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wright, the station commander. The Army required the station to produce 46 recruits hailing from parts of Kansas’ Sedgwick and Harvey counties during the months of April, May, and June. By the cutoff date, however, only 10 people had enlisted.

“I hate looking at this. It hurts my head,” Sgt. Wright said as he closed the doors of a bulletin board showcasing the numbers. “There’s not a night when I don’t think about it.”

The biggest competitor for qualified candidates is private enterprise, he said.

Though the salaries of military personnel have continued to increase steadily over the past five years, recent high school graduates--the backbone of the enlisted ranks--say they can earn more in the civilian sector, Sgt. Wright said. Entry-level salaries for blue-collar positions at the Boeing Co. in Wichita, for example, start at about $27,000, while Army soldiers with the same qualifications earn only $13,000 a year.

Moreover, many young people fear they won’t have a flexible career in the military, Sgt. Wright said. Promotions are given only when slots become available within the ranks, and switching fields of expertise or even day-to-day jobs can be difficult.

Anthony Hull, 18, was initially attracted to the Army because it pays up to 75 percent of the cost of college for any active-duty soldier. The Army Reserve, an option that requires service once a month, pays up to $9,036 to soldiers who commit to serve for six years.

“They came over and gave me and my parents the spiel, but I felt I wasn’t ready for it,” Mr. Hull said recently. “I felt that maybe I was signing ... my freedom of choice away.”

Mr. Hull, a 1999 graduate of Wichita South High School, instead opted to attend a community college in Wichita where he was offered a full scholarship. This way, he said, he can explore several possible career paths rather than commit to one.

College Over Combat

The lure of higher education pulls many high school students away from military service, Sgt. Wright said. As a college degree becomes increasingly critical to landing a high-paying job, many students are reluctant to forgo higher education or delay it by serving in the military. And with more financial aid and low-interest loans available than ever before, more students are finding college affordable, he said.

Nickolas Hein, 18, is just the kind of recruit the military wants. He graduated near the top of his class from Bishop Carroll High School, a private Catholic school in Wichita, and briefly considered enlisting.

“I thought I’d look into it,” Mr. Hein said. “But I got scholarship money for school. Over four years, I’ll get $35,000 [from the University of Kansas], nearly a full ride and a half.”

Sgt. Earl E. Garner, an Army Reserve recruiter in Wichita who works in some of the city’s roughest high schools, noted that in years past, many high school students automatically included military life in their lists of postgraduation options. Today, many never even think about it, and Sgt. Garner said that’s partly because their counselors and mentors don’t bring it up.

“Counselors are graded by the number of graduates that are going to college,” the sergeant said. “The Army doesn’t count.”

Other advisers grew up in an era of antiwar sentiment and see the military as a dishonorable profession or as a place for those who misbehave, he contended, so they steer students away from the service.

But T.K. Cellar, the chairman of the guidance and counseling department at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, said such observations are “way off base.”

“It’s not high school counselors hurting the cause,” Mr. Cellar said in an interview by electronic mail. “I know of nowhere that counselors are evaluated based upon the number of kids they get into college. If a kid wants to attend college, it’s our job to help them get there ... just as it is our job to hook them up with military recruiters and employers if that is their intended direction after high school.”

Today’s strong economy is the main reason many graduates don’t enlist, Mr. Cellar said.

“Maybe the recruiters need to examine their recruiting tactics?” he added. “They do come on very strong sometimes, and are often overbearing to the point of being annoying to the prospective recruit.”

War Is Hell

The recent military conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia also turned off some potential recruits, Sgt. Garner said.

“The Army offers a lot of great things, but I didn’t want to go to Kosovo,” said Brandon J. Meyer, 18, a recent graduate of Andale High School in Andale, Kan. Instead, Mr. Meyer accepted a track scholarship at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan.

“I do think [warfare] is scaring people,” agreed Pvt. Matthew Stillwell, 19, a medic in the Army Reserve who is contemplating switching to the regular Army. He acknowledged: “I am afraid of getting shot.”

But Mr. Stillwell said he was willing to make sacrifices to serve his country. The son of two service members, he has military-style tattoos on his chest and back and wears dog tags around his neck 24 hours a day, even though it isn’t required in the Reserves.

Recruiters in Wichita agree that kind of dedication is hard to find in young people in the late 1990s.

“They come in today for the college money,” Sgt. Garner said, shaking his head. “They have no understanding what service to country is.”

Even when qualified applicants are located and agree to sign up, one out of every 25 recruits balks at the last minute, said Sgt. Wright, the Wichita West station commander.

Jennifer Bourke, 19, had taken the military’s qualifying test twice and all but signed on the dotted line with the Navy when she opted out after learning that women aren’t sent into combat.

“In my opinion, they were on the trip that women should be home and not doing anything for fear we could break a nail,” Ms. Bourke said. She is living at home until she can earn enough money to go to college.

Even the weather seemed to conspire against the recruiters this summer. The annual air show held at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita is usually prime time for recruiters. It’s a chance to flaunt the best of what the military has to offer--glamorous, high-tech planes and smartly dressed, respectful personnel. But this year, the opportunity was scuttled by whipping winds and cold temperatures. Recruiters from all branches of the military watched glumly as small packs of shivering high school students bypassed their tents loaded with military equipment in search of hot chocolate and coffee. Even the Army’s HummVee, painted in rainbow colors, failed to attract much more than a few quick glances.

Uphill Battle

The armed forces have employed an arsenal of strategies to boost the number of recruits over the past few years.

One way is to increase exposure through advertising. The Navy, for example, has raised its advertising budget by nearly three-fourths over the past two years, from $41.2 million in fiscal 1997 to $70 million this year.

The military is also using more and younger recruiters in an attempt to appeal to the generation now in high school, Sgt. Wright said. Instead of assigning soldiers in their mid-30s to recruit students, the military has begun using more personnel in their mid-20s.

And financial incentives also have grown. Both the Army and the Navy offered $3,000 signing bonuses for those who enlisted before May 31 this year. The Air Force and the Marines allocated $9,000 and $4,000 signing bonuses for recruits who enlisted in specialized fields.

But it may take more than some extra cash to get high school students thinking seriously about military life.

"[The military] is one of the best opportunities,” Jeff Elliott said as he and his sons walked around McConnell Air Force Base during the Wichita Air Show last month. “It helps a young man grow up, and at the same time you get money for college.”

Mr. Elliott’s 17-year-old, Seth, rolled his eyes.

“Boot camp is a lot of hard work,” the lanky blond said. “I just don’t know if I want to work for it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Fewer Grads Answer Uncle Sam’s Call


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