Army Tries Private Pitch For Recruits

Bill Schulz's community ties help him sign up Army recruits in Lancaster, Pa. He works for Serco Inc., which is one of two private companies recruiting in a pilot project. In July, Schulz made nearly $10,000 for signing up nine recruits.
Bill Schulz's community ties help him sign up Army recruits in Lancaster, Pa. He works for Serco Inc., which is one of two private companies recruiting in a pilot project. In July, Schulz made nearly $10,000 for signing up nine recruits. (By Sean Simmers For The Washington Post)

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Bill Schulz flipped through a list of Army careers, carefully watching the reaction of Tim Mathis, the 19-year-old construction worker perched next to him. When the potential recruit shrugged in disinterest, Schulz quickly moved to the next job, pointing to those that had the highest signing bonuses or might generate the kind of experience future employers will value.

"We're going to find you something you like," Schulz said.

For more than a year, Schulz, 59, has worked for Serco Inc., a company hired by the Army to test how well private headhunters do compared with the enlisted men and women who do the job. If the sales pitch works, the Army gets a new recruit, Serco gets paid and Schulz is rewarded. In July, he received a bonus of nearly $10,000 from Serco after signing up nine recruits, a company record that also earned him an invitation to speak to a group of military recruiters about his success.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made military recruiting, which was already difficult, even tougher. The Army and Army Reserve increased new soldiers' signing bonuses for some jobs, raised the maximum age for enlistees and stopped some soldiers from retiring. A recent government report noted that many military recruiters were unhappy with their jobs and that recruiting violations -- such as instructing applicants not to disclose medical conditions -- increased 50 percent in one year.

By turning to the private sector, advocates argue, the Army can save money and free soldiers to fight. Critics say it pushes the limit to what military jobs should be outsourced, furthering a trend that has already drawn record numbers of private contractors into roles as central as interrogating prisoners.

"The use of contractors for this sensitive purpose, dealing with the lives of young people, is troublesome," said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has often criticized the government's reliance on contractors. "There is a notorious lack of oversight in all contracts, so why would we expect that in this very sensitive area it would be any better?"

To Serco and MPRI Inc., it is good business. The two Virginia-based firms have more than 400 recruiters assigned across the country, and have signed up more than 15,000 soldiers. They are paid about $5,700 per recruit.

The companies have tried to apply business savvy to the work. They cut the military's typical seven-week training program for new recruiters to three weeks. And MPRI is using about 20 percent fewer people in the average recruiting station to get the same amount of work done, according to program manager Don Tarter.

They have also included competition and rewards in the process, including cash bonuses, $50 gas cards and suede jackets. Serco encourages recruiters to join the "high rollers" and become one of the "big dogs" by signing up a lot of recruits. Both companies offer a base salary of about $20,000, but recruiters can make $50,000 or more with bonuses and commission.

"If you want to eat steak, you have to put people in the Army," said Stewart McGregor, Serco's program manager. "The more you write, the more you will be paid."

While the Army hasn't announced a decision on whether it will continue the experiment with private recruiters, which was mandated by Congress and operates only as a pilot program, it appears to be moving in that direction. MPRI, a unit of contracting giant L-3 Communications, and Serco are competing for contracts to provide hundreds more recruiters across the country.

The private recruiters struggled at first when compared with their enlisted counterparts, whom they refer to as "green suits." Since the pilot program started in 2002, "recruiting companies have been statistically less productive," according to an Army report. The companies had high employee turnover, especially for the first two years, and enlisted a lower quality of recruit, the report said. The military ranks recruits by their entrance-test scores.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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