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Study: With good jobs scarce, more twenty-somethings use the Army as a last resort

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There's a job in Charlotte for Tashir Quarles. He just can't get it quite yet. And before he can, he might have to make a brutal choice.

Last week, Quarles, 28, was sitting in the Four Seasons mall in Greensboro, N.C., making a list of people to invite to a party the next weekend. Not for fun -- he and his buddy Clayton Lyerly, an aspiring rapper who works days at a temp agency, promote clubs on the side for two bucks a head. It's just to get by, until Quarles gets his master's in graphic design and figures he can go work at a video game company in Charlotte, N.C.

It's not really a living, though. Quarles got laid off from an $8.50-an-hour security guard job a month ago and already lost his car and his apartment, so he's been staying with friends. If he can't make his child support payments for his two young boys, he worries he could end up in jail, which he's seen happen to friends.

But Quarles does have at least one alternative: the military. His two younger brothers have already joined up, and his family back in New Jersey is pushing him to do the same.

"The way jobs is now, it's really crazy. That's why people don't want to work," says Quarles, whose sky-blue track suit matches Lyerly's star-shaped earrings. "And they have these other things, like the Army. That's why people go, because they can't find a job, they can't take care of their kids. They don't lock people up if they're in the Army. That's how they recruit people now. The majority of people go into the Army because they don't have a job, and they don't want to get locked up over something stupid."

That might be a bit of an overstatement, but Quarles actually isn't that far off base. The RAND Corporation released a study last week showing that more people were enlisting in the Army in their later 20s, rather than right out of high school -- 56 percent were older than 20 in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. Of those, one-third said they joined because there were "no jobs at home," and nearly half said that those they found were "dead-end jobs." The older recruits also turn out to have higher reenlistment rates, and they get promoted faster. Which, of course, is good news for the Pentagon.

"For these older recruits, the Army provided a second chance," said the study's author, Bernard Rostker. "Our findings suggest that these older youths will continue to be a valuable source of future recruits for the military."

That doesn't mean it's an attractive option for everyone. Quarles really, really doesn't want to join the military: That would mean leaving his two boys behind and taking a step away from his career goals, for which he's already taken on loans. Plus, it's scary.

"I shouldn't have to force myself to go to the Army, just because you never know what's going to go on in this world," says Quarles. "I could go into the Army, and we could go to war. I don't want to go into the Army just to maintain myself, and all of a sudden I get shipped off to Korea or wherever."

At least, though, it would be something different. Quarles says he could get another job, but not one that would be worth the time.

"I just can't do fast food again, like minimum wage stuff," says Quarles. He went to South Carolina State University on a basketball scholarship and worked as a manager at a store in the Greensboro mall until getting fired over what he says was a disagreement with his boss. "For me to have had all the job experiences that I've had, it's kind of whack to move backwards instead of moving forwards."