Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The dark clouds hanging over the nation’s economic future have a silver lining for one profession: military recruiters. KPBS reporter Alison St John explains how high unemployment is benefiting recruitment and retention in the armed forces.
About 40 young men and women are doing pushups on the concrete sidewalk by a Marine Recruitment Office in a San Diego Mall. Those wearing dark blue tee shirts are the ones who’ve already signed up, the others are there to check out the possibilities of a job in the Marine Corps.
Inside the office, a huge poster of a marine stares down as a recruiter issues orders. “Here’s a clip board! Make sure you get all your information on it. I’m going to get your height and weight .”
Recruit Daniel Tactay says he graduated from high school 2 years ago, and went to Community College. But he’s already lost his first job, and his dream of being a police officer has faded, as city budgets froze job openings.
“Nowadays,” he says, “with the whole economy, and the whole way of life getting harder, I wanted to get a guaranteed job. I wanted to be part of something bigger, something that’s more stable, and something that I can use that looks really good on a resume.”
Tactay fell back on his years of ROTC at High School, and now he’s fired up about becoming a Marine. “I’m ready to go tomorrow,” he says, “ if I had the option.”
But Tactay will have to wait several months to start boot camp. There are more recruits ahead of him. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot is expanding to graduate 19,000 Marines this year, up from 18,000 last year.
Captain Chris Devine of the Marine’s Recruiting Command says Congress decided to expand the Corps back in 2007 from about 175,000 to 202,000 strong. “It was a five year plan,” he says, “ but we met our 202 K plan in two and a half years.”
Devine says the Corps initially hired more recruiters and reached out with financial bonuses for qualified candidates. But he says there’s competition for those bonuses now, as the recession pushes more young high school graduates to consider a job in the military. “I think the economy definitely helped,” he says, “in that we see a little bit more walk-in traffic.”
The improving security situation in Iraq and the lure of a new adventure in Afghanistan may also be factors.
The Navy is in a different situation from the Marine Corps. It’s shrinking its force. Spokesman Barry Tolin says recruiters are turning people away. “Currently,” he says, “our recruiters are making their monthly goal within the first or second day of the month.”
Some who want to join the Navy are turning instead to the Army. David Salazar of the Army’s Southern California Recruiting Battalion says the nationwide goal is about 100,000 new recruits this year. He doesn’t know if it’s due to the economy but, he says , “We have seen an increase in interest in service in the U.S. army over the past couple of months.”
The poor job market is also a powerful argument to stay in the military, in other words, to re-enlist .
Major Shawn Haney of Manpower Affairs for the Marines says the Corps has budgeted nearly $470 million for retention bonuses this year. But, she says, retention has never been higher, and as a result, reenlistment bonuses are no longer so common.
“Now,” Haney says, “ a marine, in order to get one of the remaining reenlistment bonuses, may have to move into an occupational specialty that is one of what we call one of our ‘high demand’ specialties.”
Those specialties may also be high risk. Heidi Tilt knows all about those jobs… her husband has one of them.
Tilt has brought her two small children to the Armed Services YMCA playgroup, where mothers can talk with each other while their children play. She says her husband deployed four times in four years, and then, she says, he was offered a $37 thousand bonus to reenlist.
“He drives the trucks in the convoys, “ she says, “the hummers. It does require a lot of skills, and there is the negative that it is the second highest fatality rate.”
But fear for his physical safety was trumped by their fear of the financial consequences of leaving the Marines during an economic downturn. Tilt’s blue eyes turn sad as she describes the phone call from Iraq with her husband, as they talked over their decision.
“It was a lot about our economy,” she says, “ we were scared about our choices outside… he laid out all our choices, and we did the pros and cons, and we decided it was our best choice to stay in.”
Tilt’s husband left for Afghanistan two weeks ago. She says it will be a longer deployment this time. He won’t be home till next January.
Alison St John, KPBS news