With the economy in tatters, many Americans are considering taking a tour on the battlefield rather than trying their hands in the ruthless job market.
While the U.S. economy trudged through a recession this year, the armed forces experienced its strongest recruiting year since 2004. All branches of the U.S. military met or surpassed their recruiting goals for fiscal 2008, according to figures released by the U.S. Defense Department.
“When times get tough, people start expanding their job search,” said Navy Cmdr. Brent Phillips. “They consider their options. And when they begin to look at what we have to offer, they’re seeing it’s a great fit for them.”
Phillips works in downtown Phoenix. He is the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy recruiting district which, in addition to Arizona, includes New Mexico, Durango, Colo., and El Paso, Texas.
Despite operating in these landlocked locations, the Navy aimed high in the district for fiscal 2008: 1,338 new active-duty contracts. Instead, the recruiters pulled in 1,366 — a 20 percent boost over last year.
“People are looking for job security, a steady paycheck and guaranteed health care,” Phillips said. “These are all things that the U.S. Navy provides.”
In the past 11 months, the U.S. has lost 1.9 million jobs, pushing the jobless rate to a 15-year high of 6.7 percent. The Labor Department reported that in November the economy shed 533,000 jobs, and 621,000 workers were forced into working part time.
Robert Steele was one of the Arizonans caught up in the economic turmoil. After the pool company he worked for went bankrupt, he decided to join the Arizona Air National Guard.
Steele, 28, who had served in the U.S. Air Force for seven years, said he needed to provide for his family of five.
“After losing my job as a pool repairman because of the economic struggle … the Arizona National Guard provided me with an opportunity to work during the week, so I could put food on the table,” Steele said.
Tough economic times often translate into a spike in numbers for the National Guard as people look to supplement their income, said Senior Master Sgt. Darrell Gronau, recruiting and retention superintendent for the Arizona Air National Guard, who has been in the business for 14 years.
And this year has followed past experience. The Air National Guard soared past its national goal of 8,548 recruits, coming in with 10,749 in fiscal 2008.
Master Sgt. Holly A. Boudro, a recruiting officer in Phoenix, said her station inked 149 recruits in the last fiscal year. The goal was 94.
“The Air National Guard is great for individuals who want to go to work or school and have a stabilized personal life,” she said. “It also helps them out financially, which is key these days.”
Boudro and Gronau now have their sights on fiscal year 2009. They are optimistic because the Air Guard just opened a new station in the Legacy Village Shopping Center at 2070 E. Baseline Road in Phoenix, moving out of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport International Airport.
Gronau expects foot traffic to increase from one to two people a month at the airport to 30 to 40 a month at the new location.
“We are more accessible to the public now,” Gronau said, citing the office’s proximity to South Mountain High School and South Mountain Community College.
HELP FOR STUDENTS
The high cost of college has been a motivation for many people entering the service, said Maj. Jackson MacDonald, recruiting and retention commander for the Army National Guard in Phoenix.
College costs have hurt many in the state. The Arizona Board of Regents reported that 53 percent of undergraduate students at Arizona’s three universities graduated with debt. The average amount was around $17,500.
The National Guard offers recruits several programs to support their education, including up to 100 percent tuition assistance for college courses taken during off-duty hours. National Guard recruiters have been working hard during events and job fairs at high schools and junior colleges to get information to students, MacDonald said.
“In the Guard, people get to go to school, learn a skill and serve their country,” he said. “We’re not having any problems getting new people.”
Julie Katzin, 20, an Arizona State University student, said she went into the Air Guard because she believed it was good way to both serve her country and receive an education. With the help of the Guard, Katzin is majoring in philosophy at ASU. She also has plans to pursue a master’s degree in secondary education.
“I feel better financially because I’m secure in these tough financial times, and personally because I’m doing something I always wanted to do,” she said.
Tough economic times also have made it easier for the armed services to recruit higher-educated applicants. For example, the active-duty Army managed to increase the percentage of recruits who hold a high school diploma from 79 percent in fiscal 2007 to 83 percent in 2008.
All recruits for any branch of the military services must have a high school GED certification to join, but the Defense Department’s goal is to have 90 percent of enlistees with a high school diploma. All active-duty services other than the Army met or surpassed that goal this year.
The U.S. Marine Corps senses that a greater number of educated people will be eying a position with the Marines in the months ahead, said Sgt. Ashley Unfried-Snipes of a Phoenix-based Marine Corps recruiting station.
“While we do not yet see a direct impact on enlisted recruiting, our instincts tell us that this could have more of an impact on our officer accessions — greater interest from college grads having a hard time finding employment after college,” she said. She said it’s premature to say the economy has had an impact on the U.S. Marine Corps recruiting efforts overall, but she added that her recruiting station is 10 months ahead of its contracting mission. Because of this, the station is “in the unique position to increase (its) already high standards of acceptance,” she said.
Good months may still be ahead for the Air Force, too, said Tech. Sgt. Terrence Coltharp, an Air Force recruiter working out of Metro Center Mall in Phoenix.
“History and statistics have shown that when there is a downturn in the economy and unemployment rates go up, about six months into the downturn we see an increase in applicants across the services,” he said.
“So after the first of the year is when we would see the effect on our current recruiting efforts.”