Army buildup confronts headwinds of tight labor market

By NAFEESA SYEED AND CHLOE WHITEAKER | Bloomberg | Published: March 13, 2018

The lowest unemployment rate in a decade is good news for Americans, but bad news for an expanding U.S. military.

To meet President Donald Trump's goal for a bigger military, Army recruiters are seeking 80,000 more men and women willing to join the Pentagon's largest service as deployments continue from Iraq to Afghanistan. That's 11,500 more soldiers this year than in 2017.

Working against the military is the U.S. jobless rate. Initial jobless claims were at the lowest in almost five decades last month. The U.S. economy added 313,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate held steady at 4.1 percent. Though the Pentagon has managed to meet its recruiting targets in recent years, unemployment rates below 6 percent -- the norm since late 2014 -- are seen as a key factor undermining those efforts.

To meet Trump's goals, the Army has added 400 recruiters to the 9,000-strong force it already employs. Hundreds of millions more dollars are also going toward offering perks to lure recruits. There's even a "quick-ship bonus" for those willing to go to basic training within a month. People ready to take on hard-to-fill jobs in engineering and cybersecurity can also get more money.

"Our recruiters are aware of the difficult environment they're working in," Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for the Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, said in an interview. "But it's not something that we can't overcome."

Another challenge is lack of knowledge about the military, Bland said. Army research shows about 50 percent of youth know nothing about the military and can't name most branches. Recruiters are boosting efforts to win over "influencers," such as high school principals and teachers, who can become advocates for joining. The effort includes "educator tours" to bases, where they can climb into helicopters and talk with pilots to learn of opportunities.

Such moves follow decades of studies on how recruitment is affected by the civilian economy, according to Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, California, who researches military manpower.

"When the unemployment rate goes down -- as it has been -- military enlistment goes down as well," Asch said in an interview. "There's a positive relationship."

The pool of applicants is also shrinking. Thanks to high rates of obesity, drug use, criminal records and failing grades on the Army's aptitude test, the pool of eligible recruits is just 29 percent of the available population of 17- to 24-year-olds.

The last time the Army had to recruit 80,000 people was in 2008, when the global financial crisis made a steady military paycheck an easier sell. While the national unemployment rate is low, there are still pockets where joblessness persists and recruiting may prove easier. Last year, Alaska had the highest unemployment rate at 7.2 percent, followed by New Mexico at 6.2 percent.

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