Military Benefiting From High Jobless Rate

The Army has exceeded its recruiting goals for the past several months, and that's being attributed to the downturn in the economy. There are still some problems: The Army isn't getting the top-quality recruits it wants, and the National Guard is not meeting its recruiting goals.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The bad economy is good news for somebody. The Army has exceeded its recruiting goals for the past several months. Apparently many people who are out of work are turning to the military. There are still some problems: the Army isn't getting the top quality recruits it wants and the National Guard is not meeting its recruiting goals. New figures will be released this week, but NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has seen the numbers, and he joins us now.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Tom, you've been talking with recruiters. Last week you were talking with recruiters. What are they saying?

BOWMAN: Well, they're saying there's a lot more interest in the Army now as a full time job now that people are losing their jobs or just having trouble finding work. Now, it's not only just high school students, those just getting out of high school students, but also people in their early to mid-20s now are looking to the Army.

And recruiters also see something new. They say parents are now interested in considering the Army as an option for their kids, especially now that the violence has decreased in Iraq. So the Army, we're told, will once again exceed its recruiting goals for the month of January.

WERTHEIMER: You've reported before that the Army has had to settle for lower quality recruits. Is that still the case in this bad economy?

BOWMAN: Yeah, you know, it still is. Army documents obtained by NPR show that they're still bringing in about the same number of recruits with waivers for the past four months than they did during the same time last year. We found several dozen with felonies, hundreds of them with misdemeanors for drug and alcohol problems, and hundreds more for - waivers for medical conditions, things like asthma and other kinds of medical conditions. Overall, for the past four months about 1,800 recruits had some type of waiver. Now, that's about 18 percent of all recruits.

WERTHEIMER: So…

BOWMAN: Now, in general the - if you look at the statistics we have, the National Guard recruit tends to be a higher quality recruit. More of them have high school diplomas. They score higher on their aptitude tests. And also, overall, the National Guard recruits have fewer numbers of waivers.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's talk about the Guard. You have learned that the Guard is having more trouble hitting its targets than the activity duty Army is?

BOWMAN: Right.

WERTHEIMER: What's causing that?

BOWMAN: Well, that's what we found. Those who are looking at the military now are looking for a full time job, not the kind of part time job that the Guard would offer. You know, many Guard units have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in general they train one weekend a month and then two weeks in the summer. So - and another reason is that the Guard is looking to improve the quality of their recruits overall, so they're not taking those now who have lower scores on their military aptitude tests.

WERTHEIMER: Is the Guard worried about its numbers?

BOWMAN: Well, they are a little bit, but really not quite yet, because the Guard actually has a surplus of soldiers because they've been doing so well recruiting over the past several years before the economic trouble started. They're supposed to have 358,000 soldiers. They actually have 366,000 on their books. But over time in the coming months is a concern that they could have trouble making sure their units are at full strength if people tend to go to the active duty Army rather than the National Guard.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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