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.
Part of the problem, officials from both companies acknowledged, is that the recruiters are civilians.
Recruits sometimes "are surprised when they come in," Tarter said. "The Army has the advantage of the uniform."
The companies have improved and sometimes outperform their military counterparts, according to the Army report, which recommended continuing the $170 million program. The companies' "volume production and quality significantly improved such that there was no statistical difference . . . although the contract companies remained lower for quality." That is a good sign, the report says, "since this was accomplished despite the problems of high turnover and a less than friendly market, all while establishing a new business."
Serco staffs its Lancaster station with precision. Besides Shultz, there is Mike Siderias, the station manager, who is retired from the military and still has a buzz cut. His square shoulders still fit nicely into his dress uniform, which Siderias said he gets out for community events.
Then there is John Stutzman, a member of the Air Force Reserve. He returned in June from a four-month stint in Afghanistan commanding a fleet of three small planes that supplied Army Special Forces soldiers. That experience gives him an advantage with potential recruits looking for personal accounts of life in a war zone.
But Schulz is the most plugged into the local community, using his deep connections to cultivate prospects. He has been president of the Lancaster Recreation Association, has coached high school basketball and is now district commissioner for local Amateur Softball Association leagues. He knows many of the school administrators, making it easier to get speak to students, he said. "I have always worked with young people in the area of counseling," Schulz said.
The Vietnam veteran often works 12 to 14 hours a day, exuding a plain-spoken patriotism. "I believe this is one of the important jobs there is, getting people into the military," he said recently, surrounded by performance awards, including commendations from the mayor for community service dating back to the 1980s. He said he tried to rejoin during the Persian Gulf War, "but didn't make it by one year."
When potential recruits voice concerns about dying or getting hurt, he points to a photo of himself in the late 1970s next to more than a dozen amateur boxers he trained. "A good portion of them are dead now, not from war, but on the streets," he said.
Just as helpful as Schulz's local connections are his sales skills, honed over more than 20 years. After leaving the Navy, Schulz sold printing services and advertising, which he found unfulfilling, before being approached by Serco last year. "I wasn't even thinking about getting back into sales," he said.
Explaining how he finds a recruit sometimes requires a family tree. There are some sister-brother, father-son combinations, as well as referrals from the softball association. While 20 percent of potential recruits are considered walk-ins, the rest are found through a prospecting process that includes visiting high schools and making phone calls for hours, Schulz said. "I get quite a few . . . from people I know in the community," he said. "If you want to talk about the sales part of it, you have to be able to close it whether they call you or you call them."
Schulz met Tim Mathis, the construction worker, through his brother Jason Mathis, a cook at a local restaurant that Schulz occasionally visited. Talk would often turn to the Army and Jason Mathis eventually signed up. A few months later, Tim was in Schulz's office.
"You think you might like truck driving?" Schulz said to him, mentioning the $14,000 signing bonus. It can be a dangerous job, but is one of the most needed in Iraq.
"That doesn't say you're going to be there," he told him.
But when Mathis, whose father is a truck driver, indicated he was not interested, Schulz shifted back to construction jobs and the sales pitch continued.
"You're not learning just one piece of equipment," he said as a video of soldiers moving supplies played on his computer screen.
Almost an hour later, Schulz swiveled his leather chair and faced his prospect.
How sure was Mathis that he would sign up? Schultz wanted to know.
Mathis said 90 percent, then 99 percent. "School is not really the path for me," said Mathis, who as of late last week was still talking with Schulz about his decision. "I'm not the wealthiest guy around."