Army More Selective as Economy Lags

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Army last month stopped accepting felons and recent drug abusers into its ranks as the nation's economic downturn helped its recruiting, allowing it to reverse a decline in recruiting standards that had alarmed some officers.

While shunning those with criminal backgrounds, the Army is also attracting better-educated recruits. It is on track this year to meet, for the first time since 2004, the Pentagon's goal of ensuring that 90 percent of recruits have high school diplomas.

The developments mark a welcome turnaround for the Army, which has the military's biggest annual recruiting quota and had in recent years issued more waivers for recruits with criminal records. That, coupled with unprecedented strains from repeated deployments, led some senior officers to voice concerns that wartime pressures threatened to break the all-volunteer force.

Now, though, rising unemployment, security gains in Iraq and other factors have helped make military service more attractive and have allowed recruiters to be more choosy, according to military officials and Pentagon data.

Among the other military branches, the Marine Corps saw some increase in the number of recruits with low test scores, but even so, the service remained within Pentagon guidelines. The Air Force and the Navy have been trimming personnel.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said, "We are not even going to consider" applicants who test positive for drugs or alcohol, or have adult felony convictions such as assault, arson and robbery.

Previously, Army recruits had to wait six months -- and before that, just 45 days -- to reapply after failing a drug test, and some felons could apply for waivers, Army officials said. Every day, the Army processed eight to 10 requests for such drug and felony waivers, Anderson said.

The Army annually granted hundreds of waivers for felons in recent years, reaching a high of 511 in 2007. Now, that category of waiver, for "adult major misconduct," is closed, Anderson said.

Moreover, applicants who have been arrested for juvenile criminal activity such as theft and assault will no longer be considered unless they have high school diplomas, the Army said.

At the same time, recruiters are being more selective on educational standards. Among active-duty Army recruits this fiscal year, 93 percent had high school diplomas through March, compared with 83 percent for 2008 and 79 percent for 2007.

Similarly, the Army expects to surpass the benchmark of at least 60 percent of its recruits being among the top half of scorers on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, the military's aptitude battery. Through March, 66 percent had attained that level. Only 2 percent of recruits scored in the lowest acceptable category of the test. In 2008 and 2007, the Army hit the Pentagon's ceiling of 4 percent.

Several factors have expanded the recruiting pool, leading to a larger number of applicants, while the Army's quota has decreased, from 80,000 active-duty recruits at the start of the year to 65,000, as more soldiers elect to stay in uniform.

Above all, the economic crisis has increased unemployment and reduced job opportunities -- particularly in sectors that tend to employ young people, said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's top recruiting official.

When the recession hits the service sector, "everything from McDonald's to cutbacks at Best Buy and some of the more entry-level jobs . . . this impacts young people more. Those who are last hired tend to be first fired," Gilroy said. "They would then view the military option more favorably."

Another factor has been improved security in Iraq, officials said. "Casualties are way down, neighborhoods are safer, and that has proved a significant factor," Gilroy said.

American youth are increasingly likely to join the military, recent Pentagon polling has shown. Those ages 16 to 21 who said they would "definitely" or "probably" serve in the military in the next few years rose from 9 percent in December 2007 to 13 percent last December, according to Defense Department Youth Polls.

The gains in recruiting are leading the Army to cut its recruiting budget and scale back some bonuses and incentives. The service plans to cut 1,100 active-duty, Reserve and contract recruiters over the next two years, Anderson said.

But Army and Pentagon officials are concerned that cutting back too sharply would be unwise, given the cyclical nature of the economy and recruitment.

"It may be easy and quick to cut recruiting budgets; it is difficult, time consuming and expensive to ramp back up when recruiting becomes difficult once again," Gilroy said.

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