Troops hard to recruit and keep, Pentagon says Opportunities at colleges, airlines outshine military

March 06, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the armed forces holding less appeal for college-minded teen-agers and with military pilots leaving for lucrative airline jobs, the Pentagon is finding it harder to attract and retain high-quality personnel.

"The recruiting market has gotten significantly tighter for us," Lt. Gen. Frederick E. Vollrath, deputy chief of Army personnel, told Congress yesterday. "The most qualified -- mentally, morally and physically -- have more opportunities."

At the same time, the military is losing pilots and navigators at an alarming rate, said Lt. Gen. Michael D. McGinty, deputy chief of Air Force personnel. The number of pilots who have left has increased 40 percent from the same period last year, McGinty said.

"These facts, together with a 40 percent increase in expected airline hiring this year, spell bad news for our pilot and navigator force," he said.

Military officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee that more pay and incentives, particularly money for college, would be the surest way to maintain top-quality ranks.

Last year, each military service met its recruiting goals, Assistant Defense Secretary Fred Pang told the Senate Armed Services Committee, although he conceded that long-term recruiting indicators "are mixed." For example, the military's youth attitude surveys show fewer teen-agers interested in a military career, he said.

"They think the military is the last resort," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. James A. Ruffin, 33, a Baltimore native who oversees three recruiting stations in the city. Too many public school teen-agers, he said, fail to finish high school and become content to live at home, while private schools often prevent him from recruiting.

"They are the future of the military," Ruffin said of the private school students. But most are opting for college and tell him, "We have no need for you."

At the same time, recruiters said, the Army sex scandal has hurt recruiting in all services. Even the celebrated decision of the heavyweight boxer Riddick Bowe to drop out of Marine boot camp might have caused a drop in those willing to sign up.

"I had two kids who said, 'If Riddick Bowe can't make it through recruit training, I can't make it through,' " Ruffin recalled.

Still, Ruffin said, by working six-day work weeks, he has met his recruiting goals for the past year, with the exception of November, when he picked up 10 recruits rather than the needed 12.

The Army appears to have the most dire recruiting problem. To maintain its size and skill mix, it has calculated that it must bring in 89,700 enlistees this year, a 22-percent increase over last year. To meet that figure, the Army is accepting more recruits who lack a high school diploma.

Among recent Army recruits, 88 percent have a high school diploma, down from 94 percent during the same time last year. Pang said that 80 percent of those with high school diplomas will complete their first year, compared with 50 percent ot those who hold a GED equivalency certificate.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, found that of 176,000 military recruits who signed up in 1994, 25,000 left after six months. They cost $390 million, or about $16,000 per recruit. An additional 60,000 are expected to leave before 1998.

The GAO said the services must do better at screening recruits, explaining what they face in the military and eliminating those with medical or other problems.

"Early attrition remains a complex issue," Pang said, adding that the Pentagon is putting into effect the GAO recommendations.

Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who is a Vietnam veteran, asked how the trends could be reversed. Both Vollrath and Ruffin suggested providing more money to recruits for college education. "Money for college is one of the prime incentives," Vollrath said.

In 1985, the Army set up a college fund with a four-year value of $25,200, Vollrath said. Though the Pentagon has approved an increase and other incentives, up to $40,000, the figure will keep up with the inflation-adjusted 1985 value only until 1999.

"Given the opportunities for college-bound youth," Vollrath said, "it is not the same compelling offer it was over a decade ago."

Meanwhile, the services have provided more pay and benefits for aviators to try to prevent a drift to the airline industry -- even after taxpayers have spent millions training them. But they have found the amount is still too low to prevent an exodus.

What began as a $6,000-per-year incentive for veteran Marine pilots in 1994 rose to $12,000 per year, thus putting them on par with Navy and Air Force bonuses. Now, the Pentagon is considering raising those bonuses to $25,000 per year and is briefing members of Congress, who are sympathetic to the proposal, said one congressional source.

"In order to attract, motivate and retain quality people in our all-volunteer force," Pang said, "the services must provide a standard of living for their members that can compete with the private sector."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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