Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Don't Send Us...

....your overweight, pot-smoking, fitness-challenged, Ritalin-addicted teen, yearning to join the American military. Saw this AP article over the weekend, and it highlights many of the serious problems facing the armed services in meeting their recruiting quotas.

First of all, we're in a demographic trough, with a recent decline in the number of service-eligible men and women, between ages of 18 and 24, the primary recruiting pool. According to the Census Bureau, the number of people in that demographic category declined by one million between 2000 and 2004. When you start factoring out young people who can't meet military standards for various reason (medical problems, obesity, criminal records, etc), the overall recruiting pool shrinks to roughly 6.6 million. From that group, the military needs to sign up 180,000 new recruits a year, just to maintain current force levels. Plans to expand the Army and Special Forces will push that quota past 200,000 a year.

What's the solution? So far, the military has been throwing money at the problem, offering larger sign-on and reenlistment bonuses (one of my colleagues, a retired Green Beret NCO), turned down a $150,000 to re-up for four years. Highly experienced combat medics can get a reenlistment bonus approaching $100,000 and new recruits can get varying amounts of money when they volunteer for certain jobs. These "personnel costs" represent an ever-increasing segment of the Pentagon budget, and that could mean less money for other programs.

But there's an element missing from this story. As we've noted before, the U.S. Marine Corps has managed to meet its recruiting goals, despite three years of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the loss of hundreds of Marines. How does the Corps do it? By refusing to compromise standards, and holding to traditional, "Corps" values. Thomas Ricks's excellent "Making the Corps" has been out for a few years, but it is an excellent account of how the USMC transforms raw recruits into Marines, and preserves its own unique culture and values in the process.

To be sure, not everyone is cut out to be a Marine. But demanding excellence and holding fast to standards and time-honored traditions still holds a special appeal, even for members of Gen-X and Gen-Y. The Marines understand that attracting quality recruits isn't always a matter of money. It's a lesson the other services need to learn as well.

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