Armed services having trouble finding qualified recruits

By Otto Kreisher

CongressDaily March 24, 2008 The armed services' struggle to attract the number of young men and women needed each year to maintain their required force levels is increasingly handicapped by a hard set of demographic facts that sharply reduces the pool of potential recruits and by emotional barriers that may block access to the best prospects.

"We should not lose sight of the fact that, although the youth population is large, a relatively small proportion of American youth is qualified to enlist," David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, testified recently. "It is an unfortunate fact that many in the contemporary youth population are currently ineligible to serve."

Chu and service officials point out that only about three of every 10 Americans of military age -- generally considered 17 to 24 years old -- can meet the standards for military service.

In testimony to Congress, Chu cited the grim statistics: About 35 percent are medically disqualified, with obesity a large contributing factor; 18 percent are barred due to a record of abusing drugs or alcohol; 5 percent have serious conduct/criminal problems; 6 percent have too many dependents, and 9 percent scored in the lowest aptitude category on the enlistment test. Another 10 percent are qualified but considered unavailable because they are attending college.

That leaves fewer than 5 million potential recruits out of the total of about 31 million Americans of age to serve in the military. From that reduced field, the services need about 300,000 recruits a year for their active, reserve and National Guard forces.

The number of potential recruits is reduced by the Pentagon's requirement -- based on years of studies on what qualities indicate a high probability of being able to perform necessary tasks and completing a term of enlistment -- that 90 percent of recruits have a high school diploma, or a GED.

Nationally, 70 percent of young people graduate from high school, with the averages as low as 50 percent in some urban areas and among minorities. Military recruiting officials note that many young people with high school diplomas cannot pass the enlistment tests.

To make the situation worse, access to that limited pool of eligible recruits often is blocked by opposition from parents, teachers or other influencers, or by a young person's inclinations. Service leaders say the percentage of military aged Americans indicating any interest in military service is the lowest on record.

In the face of these limits, the services are taking extraordinary steps to meet recruiting quotas. The Army, which must attract about 170,000 new soldiers this year for its active and reserve force, initiated programs to help young men or women get their GED or pass the aptitude tests and one that gives slightly overweight individuals a year after enlisting to meet weight standards. All of the services provide some waivers for the high school education requirement or other factors.

Again, the Army has had to use this authority the most, offering three times as many this year as in 2005. Army Secretary Pete Geren said a study showed that the 17,000 soldiers brought into Army on waivers have performed better than the average enlistee.