Perceptions Making it Tough On Service Recruiters
By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 1996 For most recruiters, trying to restock America's military ranks is resulting in longer duty days trying to persuade recruits to join. It also means surmounting myths and misperceptions about the military shared by recruits and their parents.
Today's young Americans are less likely to join the armed forces -- DoD's annual Youth Attitude Tracking Study shows only a quarter of them consider military service an option. That lack of interest is taking its toll on recruiters.
Survey results indicate students are choosing college and local employment over military service for reasons ranging from pursuing a civilian career to avoiding the dangers of deployment.
In these days of force reductions, why so much concern about military recruitment? Defense officials said the services still need to recruit to replace those who serve one or two terms. Even with base closings, unit inactivations and personnel reductions over the past five years, DoD hopes to enlist nearly 200,000 service members this fiscal year.
"We're still hiring," said Air Force Maj. Dana Born, DoD's assistant director for recruiting research and analysis. "What we have now is fewer recruiters handling an increased mission in a wider area, but we still have the mission of recruiting new talent. We still need good people."
Recruiters say they encounter many young Americans who see military life as one long boot camp offering nothing but details, strenuous exercises and early morning wake-ups. Many young people in the DoD survey said they would go to extremes to avoid the dangers and rigors of military life.
To battle that myth, recruiters are spending more hours in schools, at shopping malls and on living room sofas explaining military lifestyles. They set up displays, show movies and videos, hand out pamphlets and speak for hours with potential candidates about real military life and their own experiences.
"There are many different ways we go about telling our story and getting people interested," said Petty Officer 1st Class Bradley Lancaster, the Navy's recruiting station commander in Tucson, Ariz. "We've got guys who go out on the streets in sweats with a basketball and spend hours talking to potential sailors. We've got those who'll spend hours on the phone and others who love hitting the schools. It's a matter of taking the time to earn that person's confidence and respect. If they know you and respect you, then they'll listen."
Still, certain other perceptions exist, reinforced by nightly television newscasts. "They see the war movies, the news reports on CNN, and decide right then they don't want to be exposed to that kind of job," said Army Staff Sgt. Ervin Kelly, who recruits in Philadelphia.
Other recruiters see the same thing. "A big part of the problem is that [recruits] really don't see the 'whole picture,'" said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Baron Young, also assigned in Philadelphia. "They don't realize those deployed are only a fraction of the total force."
Still, visions of troops in faraway locations conducting peacekeeping missions have their impact, not only on potential recruits, but on parents as well. Petty Officer 1st Class John Grant recruits Navy prospects from his Plymouth, Mass., station. For the past year, Grant's had to "recruit" as many parents -- many of whom grew up in the Vietnam era -- as sons and daughters.
"These are the folks who as kids remember watching Vietnam war footage and casualty figures every night on their television screens," said Grant. "Now they see troops in Somalia, Haiti or Bosnia performing peacekeeping missions. They see the uniforms, the rifles and the dangers of serving in those regions. They don't want their kids exposed to that danger."
In Philadelphia, Petty Officer 1st Class Saul Lowery said he also sees the same attitude. "Before, people were joining the Navy to keep the sea lanes open and free," he said. "That's our role and it's still our role. We were getting great kids whose parents felt their kids were doing their part to defend the nation."
Today, Lowery said things are different. "Parents are telling us that it's OK for their kids to defend the nation -- they can live with that. But they can't see their kids serving as peacekeepers for someone else's battles," he said.
Because he knows parents have these fears and beliefs, Army Sgt. 1st Class Don Thomas, a former recruiter in Hollywood, Calif., said he made a special effort to explain programs and get feedback.
Thomas, now working public affairs duties in Washington, said when he met hostile parents, he'd try to sit with them and talk about why they opposed military service. He said parents who were open to talk would often allow him a chance to explain the service, their child's role in it and the options and benefits available. Yet he also said recruiters have know when to quit.
"Usually after the second time they say 'no,' they mean 'no,'" said Thomas. "One thing we learn is you don't compete with 'deep-seated beliefs.' If they are that strongly against military service and they give you an explanation why, you learn accept it and move on."
Pentagon officials said they are trying to help recruiters meet mission requirements, improve quality of life and provide incentives. However, they admit most recruiting conditions will not really improve until trends change and more young Americans show interest in serving.
DoD met fiscal 1995 recruiting goals in numbers and high-quality recruits and is well on its way toward making fiscal 1996 projections. Fred Pang, assistant defense secretary for force management policy, said in his midyear recruiting report that 94 percent of new recruits were high school diploma graduates. He added 69 percent of those recruits scored high on the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
However, service recruiters said they are meeting goals only because they are working long hours to enlist those high-quality recruits. Many work 12- to 16-hour days, making phone calls, recruiting door to door and visiting local high schools and colleges.
Higher standards may be another part of the recruiting problem. Because military standards are high, many interested in joining the service can't meet requirements. "You look back at the early 70s where people just joined the service to find a job," said Thomas. "Things have changed. We are picky about the quality people we recruit. The biggest surprise many people have now is understanding they don't have a guarantee of getting in."
The recruiter's long schedule provides them chances to speak with hundreds of prospects each month. However, in an article entitled "Selling the Services," published in the August 1996 Government Executive, the average recruiter only signs one prospect for every 160 candidates.
Thomas doesn't debate that figure, saying there were plenty of areas in the country that had higher ratios. "I had pretty good success in Hollywood -- mine were one for every 100 -- but it was tough," he said. "Still, not everyone can qualify for the service and we took a lot of pride knowing were getting good people."
The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps task individual missions, with each recruiter tabbed for so many recruits -- often three to four per month. The Army goes to a team mission, with each station tasked to recruit a certain number. Either way, the role is to meet mission -- finding the best candidates available and getting them into the services.
Making mission also means being available at all hours of the day. "You have to make yourself available to meet that prospect's schedule," said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. John Wright. "If you want him, you're going to conform to meet his schedule.
"What causes us to have longer hours is that a kid might say his only free time is after 8 p.m.," said Wright, who recruits in Tucson. "That's a legitimate claim for a lot of kids around here. They're involved with high school or college, they're fulfilling their social life and many have part-time jobs."
For Wright and his Marine counterparts, that means working recruiting schedules around a prospect's free time -- sometimes up to 10 or 11 p.m., and on weekends. "If we come in at 8 a.m., having an 8 p.m. appointment means we're in for a long day," he said.
Tucson is no different from other parts of the country, and it's no different for the other services. Lowery hits the Philadelphia city streets all day and through the evening. He meets potential sailors in delicatessens, corner markets and apartments. Often these appointments are after a long day of making phone calls, visiting high schools and handling the mountain of paperwork involved in sending a recruit to basic training.
To Lowery, that means getting out of the office and finding the ones he feels the Navy needs. "Our prospects just don't walk into our office and ask to join," said Lowery. "We're bringing them in because we're hitting the streets, hitting the phones and talking to kids."
"Even so, you can't change your approach," said Staff Sgt. Michael Azevedo, who recruits Army candidates in Sierra Vista, Ariz. "You have to be honest and available to answer the questions, because there's plenty of competition out there from the colleges, from employers and the other services. Even if it involves extra hours, you'll find most recruiters will make the time and give the effort to get a quality person signed."