In sour job market, U.S. military recruitment thrives

DALLAS — Young lovers Chris White and Beatrice Mahoney sat down and did the math.

He's 20, she's 19. They've been together three years. Neither has a career, and the national unemployment rate is 9.6 percent.

Here's what they came up with — the Marine Corps.

"I've tried to get jobs everywhere," White said hours after he and his girlfriend took the oath of enlistment in Dallas.

"I've tried connections from family. I even tried to get a job working maintenance in a trailer park. But unless you have experience, it's almost impossible."

In some ways, the Fort Worth residents represent a silver lining in the storm clouds of a troubled U.S. economy. Military recruiting has never been better.

For the first time, the four largest branches of the service — the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — are far exceeding their recruiting goals. About 99 percent of enlistees have a high school diploma, and scores on the military entrance exam are the highest in the history of the all-volunteer force.

Those numbers are important, recruiters say, because enlistees with book smarts and discipline are usually easier to train.

"We know that unemployment is stubbornly high, around 9.5 percent, and that's high by historical standards," said Curtis Gilroy, the Defense Department's director of recruiting.

"When jobs are scarce in the civilian sector, the military is relatively attractive as a post-high school option for young people."

But Gilroy said Army researchers discovered something surprising when they polled new recruits about their reasons for enlisting — "service to country" was the No. 1 response.

In recent years, most young soldiers marked "job training" and "educational benefits" as their primary motive for signing up.

Mahoney isn't surprised.

Her father retired as a master sergeant after 26 years in the Marines, and she's never really wanted to do anything else.

"It's pretty much the only thing I know, and I love it to death," she said. "This is going to be my career."

As to her boyfriend, Mahoney said she hopes absence will make their hearts grow fonder. She ships out for boot camp in July to Parris Island, S.C., about the time he will begin training in San Diego.

After that, she hopes the winds of fate will deposit them at the same base.

"Our drive to be in the military pushed us together," she said. "I really think this is going to make us stronger."

Rural areas in the South have always offered fertile soil for recruiters, where patriotism and wanderlust run deep among the military's target demographic, 18- to 24-year-olds.

"For our region, the numbers speak for themselves," said Air Force Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, head of the Arlington-based 344th Recruiting Squadron, which covers North Texas and parts of Louisiana and Arkansas.

"We've met our goal 118 months straight, and many of our areas are rural."

Southern states account for 36 percent of the nation's young adults, according to the Department of Defense, but provide 41 percent of the nation's recruits. Texas is the top state in the South, supplying around 10 percent of military enlistees each year.

Each year, the services sign up between 280,000 and 300,000 new soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — and, typically, the services have little problem hitting their numbers.

What does vary is the relative quality of recruits.

When unemployment is low and the economy is riding high, military decision makers are generally more lenient about test scores and more generous with enlistment bonuses.

"Recruiting is all about finding the right people, with the right skills, at the right time, in the right numbers," Ashworth said. "Recruiting in the United States Air Force has never been more competitive than it is now."

Ashworth and others said the military is no longer a career of last resort for young people. A high school diploma — not a general equivalency certificate — is a near-requirement, brushes with the law are rarely overlooked, and even tattoos can be disqualifying.

Petty Officer 1st Class Cedrick Johnson of Pleasant Grove said he's watched the standards tighten during his 10 years in the military.

For example, three years ago Johnson signed up a recruit who had been charged with assault for getting into a fight with a high school police officer. The offense was later expunged.

"That guy probably wouldn't have been able to get in today because now we're looking at the original charge," said Johnson, 28, who graduated from Skyline High School.

"For us, it's time management now. People who come in with a lot of involvement with the police or a whole lot of medical issues ... those people just aren't getting in."

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Sharvell Davis is the face of new recruits.

A solid student and three-sport athlete, she grew up a blue-collar kid in southern Dallas. Two uncles and an aunt are serving in the Army, and one of her cousins — Jermaine D. Franklin, 22, of Arlington — was killed three years ago by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"It did scare me a little bit," said Davis, 18, who graduated from A. Maceo Smith High School this year. "And I do think about the risks because I was real close to my cousin. But in some ways, it still made me want to join."

Davis originally planned to join the National Guard and study criminal justice at the new University of North Texas at Dallas campus in southeast Oak Cliff, but her test scores did not qualify for part-time service.

She also did not qualify for her first choice on active duty — military police — so her recruiter nudged her toward a job as an Army cook.

"My mom took it kinda hard because I would've been her first child going to college," Davis said. "It's getting harder and harder out here with the recession right now.

"This way, I get guaranteed money from the military, the chance for promotions and college money."

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Recruiters say the military has always been an attractive option for young people who lack the money, desire or discipline for college. In a sour economy, it seems like an ever-sweeter deal.

Even so, Staff Sgt. Marcus Ochoa, a recruiter in Nacogdoches, Texas, said he's never had anyone walk through his door and ask to join the military because they couldn't find a job, or they wanted to get out of town.

The military, he said, is a family and a way of life.

It requires sacrifice — occasionally the ultimate sacrifice — and imposes order on lives that can be chaotic.

Potential recruits, he said, seem to understand that.

"There are niceties — education, travel, job security, those things," he said. "But they shouldn't be the reason people join.

"Do it because you want to serve your country. That's the right reason."

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AP-WF-09-10-10 0031GMT

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