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Soft economy helps recruiting effort { September 22 2003 }

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September 22, 2003
Soft Economy Aids Army Recruiting Effort

FORT KNOX, Ky., Sept. 16 The slumping American economy has proved to be a huge boon to the Army's efforts to recruit the 100,000 enlisted soldiers it says it needs this year to fill its active-duty and reserve ranks, senior Army officials say, so far relieving concerns that the turmoil in Iraq could crimp new enlistments.

All the armed services say they will meet or exceed their recruiting goals for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30. But many military personnel experts say the Army's efforts are most vulnerable over time because the Army recruits more active-duty and Reserve troops than all the other services combined 73,800 active-duty and 26,400 Reserve soldiers this year and it is now fielding about 90 percent of the 180,000 troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

"That's the driver, the economy," said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the head of the Army Recruiting Command here, adding that the chaotic conditions in Iraq have yet to hurt recruiting.

Army recruiters have always offered educational benefits, job security and training skills to prospective soldiers. But recently they have been armed with more logistical support and a growing arsenal of financial incentives that look even more enticing in a down market.

The Army has raised signing bonuses to as much as $20,000 for badly needed positions like intelligence analysts. It has also increased college aid. And it has nearly doubled its advertising budget, to $227 million, in the last four years, shelving its 20-year-old "Be All You Can Be" slogan in favor of the "Army of One" campaign, aimed at Generation Y youths. It has ramped up a cyberrecruiting operation, with daily online chat rooms in English and Spanish. Next month it is rolling out a 15-month enlistment option (the current minimum length for a tour is two years) aimed at college students, an increasingly important target group.

The sagging economy mostly affects the recruiting of active-duty soldiers. About two-thirds of all enlisted troops resign by the end of their first tour, so the Army needs more than 70,000 new recruits a year to replenish its ranks.

The demographics of the newest Army recruits are shifting slightly. Women make up about 20 percent of this year's recruits; that figure is roughly unchanged over the last three years. But since the 2001 fiscal year, the share of Hispanics signing up has increased to about 13 percent from 11 percent, while the proportion of non-Hispanic whites has increased to about 65 percent from 62 percent. At the same time, the ratio of blacks signing up has declined to 16 percent from nearly 23 percent.

The drop in black recruits may be tied to the Army's increased focus on the college market, military officials say. Nearly one in four recruits now has some college experience, almost double the rate five years ago, General Rochelle said.

Recruiting part-time Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops, who are typically older and have civilian jobs, presents mounting challenges. Military experts warn that recruiting and retaining these citizen soldiers will get more difficult as they are repeatedly called up to serve extended tours in Iraq or Afghanistan as military police, civil affairs specialists, water-purification experts and other jobs.

"How long people will continue to be deployed will ultimately have some effect on retention," said Frank Shaffery, deputy director of Army recruiting operations here. "We're concerned about it."

Those concerns grew this month when the Army announced that 20,000 Reserve and National Guard soldiers would stay in Iraq or Kuwait for as long as 12 months, extending their tours on the ground by several months.

Army National Guard officials said this week that the Guard would probably fall short of its goal of recruiting 62,000 soldiers this year. But because fewer Guard forces will leave this year than had been anticipated, the Guard still expects to maintain its overall troop level at 350,000.

Lt. Col. Michael L. Jones, the Army National Guard's chief of marketing and advertising for recruiting and retention, said the Pentagon must give these troops more certainty. "We need to build in predictability so their families, employers or universities can be told, `Here's the mobilization date and here's the demobilization date,' " he said.

The Army Recruiting Command is responsible for enlisting new regular Army and Army Reserve soldiers. The Army National Guard in each state recruits its own members, who belong to state militias unless called to active duty.

For active-duty Army and Reserve forces, recruiters are increasingly looking for older recruits with some college experience. These young people are weighing the risks of serving in places like Iraq or Afghanistan against the reality of college costs, and following their pocketbooks as well as their patriotic instincts, General Rochelle said.

"They are seeing the facts and the world situation, as well as the domestic implications of the economy, job opportunities and prospects, and the opportunity for higher education, which are impacted by rising tuition costs," he said.

Recruiting is a volatile business even in the best of times. Success depends on elusive perceptions about the vitality of the armed forces as well as their missions, a fact Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently underscored.

"We're still meeting all of the targets and goals for recruiting and retention," Mr. Rumsfeld told a conference in Washington commemorating the 30th anniversary of the all-volunteer military. "We have to watch that because we have to manage that force and recognize that there's a good deal of stress on the force at the present time."

As the presidential campaign heats up and Iraq policy comes under greater scrutiny, Army officials say it will be more critical than ever to reinforce their message with recruits and the people who influence them: parents, coaches and guidance counselors.

For these and other reasons, the Army has moved aggressively to stave off a return to the lean recruiting years of the late 1990's.

In addition to the increased recruiting dollars, the Army spent $321 million this fiscal year on travel, cellphones, laptop computers and other support for recruiters, up from $146 million a decade ago.

Sign-up bonuses for jobs in high demand, like intelligence analysts and helicopter mechanics, are now as high as $20,000, up from $15,000 a few years ago. (Bonuses for most Reserve troops range up to $5,000.) The Army will now pay up to $50,000 in education expenses and repay up to $65,000 in student loans, both sharp increases over past years.

Here at the command's three-story brick headquarters, three dozen cyberrecruiters field 750 e-mail messages daily and run online chat rooms in English and Spanish for 1,200 people a day. Recruiters say the anonymity of the chat rooms has drawn in many recruits who would never set foot in a recruiting station.

"They don't feel pressured into a commitment," said Naomi Gray, 37, a Spanish-speaking recruiter who spent seven years in the Army as a crane operator.

Ms. Gray said most of the questions that she got were about the economic and educational benefits of joining the Army. The uncertainty in Iraq, she said, has proved to be an attraction, not a turnoff, to many recruits who have contacted her.

One row up in the cyberrecruiting office, Dima Almoamin, 27, a Baghdad-born American military recruiter, is enlisting Arabic speakers by e-mail to be reservist translators for the United States military in Iraq.

Under a program started two months ago, the Army has raised its age limit for new recruits to 40 years old from 34, with a goal to attract 250 qualified Arabic translators a year for the next few years. "Eighty percent are Iraqis," Ms. Almoamin said of her recruits. "They want to help."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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