Uncle Sam wants you, and in a poor economy, you might want Uncle Sam, too.
The Pentagon is hiring, and having less difficulty doing so than in flush economic times. The Army and each of the other branches of the military are meeting or exceeding their goals for signing up recruits, and attracting more qualified people.
Last year was the first since 2004 that all active-duty and reserve forces met or passed recruiting goals. That's particularly notable for the Army, the service hit hardest by combat casualties in Iraq and by long and repeated overseas assignments that began in earnest in 2004. That was the first full year of combat in Iraq and the year that it became clear that the war would be much longer and bloodier than the Bush administration had expected.
Figures released last week suggest that as President-elect Barack Obama takes office the trends that make military careers more appealing will continue. Besides the sagging employment figures in a recession, those factors include Obama's campaign pledge to pull combat forces out of Iraq in 16 months and the drop in violence there. Obama has said he will add forces in Afghanistan, but that war is unlikely to strain military manpower and money as the Iraq conflict did.
For December, the Army signed 860 new active-duty soldiers, 115 percent of its target number of 750 enlistees. The Army also met or passed goals for October and November, meaning it has done so for the entire first quarter of budget year 2009.
Army lags other services
The Army figures are still smaller than those for other services, in part a reflection of the much more difficult task that is Army recruiting. An Army recruiter generally talks to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of young people before signing up a willing and qualified recruit.
The Navy signed 2,306 new active-duty sailors in December; the Marine Corps signed 2,392 and the Air Force signed 2,967. All six National Guard and reserve forces also met or exceeded their December recruiting goals.
"The success of our all-volunteer force begins with recruiting. Recruiting is always a challenge, but a tighter job market provides more opportunities to make our case," said Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Almarah Belk.
The military offers competitive salaries, plus good education benefits and job skills for a civilian career, she said.
"Regardless of the economy, the quality of our troops remains high, and we expect that to continue."
For several years, as the Army in particular struggled to meet its recruiting needs, military officials have cited a strong economy as one obstacle to attracting young people looking at their employment options. It is one reason that over the past year the Army and Marine Corps felt compelled to pay more than $600 million, combined, in bonuses and other financial incentives to entice recruits.
Another negative factor: Parents and others who influence the decisions of enlistment-age men and women have, since the outset of the Iraq war, become less inclined to recommend military service.
"We do benefit when things look less positive," in the civilian economy, David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief, told reporters when announcing the 2008 success last year.
'An opening to make our case'
"What more difficult economic times give us, I think, is an opening to make our case to people that we might not otherwise have," Chu said. "And if we make our case, I think we can be successful."
The military needs any break it can get on recruiting, particularly since it is in the midst of a push to substantially increase the size of the nation's ground forces — a decision driven by an urgent need to reduce the strain on troops and their families from repeated deployments to Iraq.
Plans are to boost the active-duty Army by 65,000 soldiers to a total of 547,000 by 2010.
The Marines are aiming to grow from 175,000 to 202,000 by 2011.