Fueled Partially by Economy, More Job Seekers Consider Military

By Beacon Staff

The recession has hit Roger McCrea hard. Around Christmas, the 20-year-old Kalispell man was laid off from his job delivering hot tubs. Since then, he has been working at a fast food restaurant. The new job flipping burgers brings some money into McCrea’s household, but he would like to do better – which is why he hopes to be accepted into the United States Marine Corp.

“I want a change,” McCrea said, after a visit to the local recruiter’s office in Kalispell last week. “It’s a guaranteed job with benefits.”

McCrea has family members in the armed services, so he understands the lifestyle. And the prospect of health coverage for him and his wife, along with a steady paycheck sounds like a good deal, especially in light of the few jobs presently available in the Flathead. While he didn’t score well on the entrance exam the first time he took it, he has been studying for two months and is optimistic about his second try at the test.

With experience fighting wildfires, McCrea hopes to work his way toward a position in the Marines performing aviation and firefighting rescue. The recruiter told him his chances of heading to the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan are about 50-50, McCrea said, but he’s not overly concerned about the possibility of being in harm’s way.

“I’m a little worried, but not too worried about it,” he added. “I’ll be paid to serve my country.”

With a deteriorating economy and health benefits tougher to find, McCrea’s move to join the military is an increasingly common one these days, across the country and across Montana. And the soaring interest in military careers has allowed some branches of the armed services to raise their standards of eligibility.

Enticing Incentives for MT Guard

Last week the Montana Army National Guard announced 61 enlistments in February, the most ever in a single month, bringing the state’s number of soldiers to 2,764. It accomplished this, however, while raising the minimum required test score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam.

At the National Guard recruiting office in Kalispell, a recruiter who declined to give his name said he has had a steady increase in inquiries about joining the Guard, many of which are from those who recently lost jobs in construction.

“What we’re seeing is a large number of older people that are interested in joining,” the recruiter said, “a lot of people that have been laid off.”

The incentives on offer from the Army National Guard only look more enticing as other local options dwindle: health care; a potential signing bonus of anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000; substantial financial aid for college; and an additional monthly income of $500 to $700. But with these incentives, the Montana Guard has tightened its eligibility requirements, increasingly looking to candidates with high school diplomas and minimal criminal history. Felons are ineligible to enlist.

“It’s gotten more and more strict to where there’s less violations allowed,” the recruiter added. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to enlist in the National Guard right now.”

Edward Cope, the unit administrator for the Kalispell Armed Forces Reserve Center, said the rate at which soldiers are joining his unit has roughly doubled, from about one a month, to nine people over the last four months, and “the driving factor is the economy.”

While none of his new members are unemployed, Cope said, the incentives are helping to draw a mix of ages. Some are fresh out of high school, others are a few years older, but all are “good people that have a desire to serve their country,” Cope said.

And though the incentives may be particularly generous right now, the potential of heading to war remains. Soldiers from Kalispell in the Montana Army National Guard’s 639th Quartermaster Co. are serving in Iraq currently after deploying in January.

“It is an ongoing operation,” Cope said. “The possibility always exists.”

Young Adults More Receptive to Recruitment

Local recruiters for the active components of the Armed Forces declined to comment for this story, but national spokespeople confirmed that interest in military careers is on the rise across the country.

The Army and the Marines missed monthly recruiting goals in 2005, when the U.S. economy was booming and the Iraq War was a bigger operation than at present. But fast forward to the end of 2008, where the Army enjoyed its best recruiting quarter in six fiscal years at the end of 2008, according to S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky. That trend has continued though the beginning of 2009, and Smith said he expects to overachieve again in March.

“We are pretty certain that the increase in unemployment nationally is having an impact on the number of enlistments, which would track with previous historical experience,” Smith said in an e-mail, adding that he doesn’t have statistics explaining how the economy directly impacts military enrollment. “However, in the past a 10 percent increase in unemployment has resulted in a 6 percent increase in enlistments.”

Other branches of the Armed Forces, including the Air Force and Marines, have kept their quotas stable, meeting their recruitment goals consistently. The U.S. Department of Defense reported recently that it met or exceeded recruitment goals across all branches in February. But there is also some anecdotal evidence that overall interest in the military is increasing. In other words, even if a young person opts for college or work, they are becoming more likely to consider the military.

Christa D’Andrea, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force recruiting service, said visits to the military branch’s Web site in February of this year were up 200,000 from the previous year at this time. Department of Defense Spokeswoman Eileen Lainez points to a poll conducted of more than 3,300 young adults that shows, after several years of declines, interest in the military as a career option began trending upward during the summer of 2008.

“With a tough job market and high unemployment, (recruiting) does become less of a challenge,” Lainez said. “In times like these, they may be more receptive to hearing about it.”

Like others interviewed, Lainez said a misperception exists that the Armed Forces will take anyone willing to enlist. In reality, only three in 10 Americans are even eligible, with medical reasons causing the most disqualifications. Of those medical disqualifications, obesity tends to be the most common, Lainez said.

What Doesn’t Change

But while dynamic factors like the economy may influence the difficulty of recruiting for the military, there are always those factors drawing men and women to the Armed Forces that remain steady. On the same afternoon McCrea visited the Kalispell recruiting center, Jonathan Faust also stopped in. Faust, 31, has just re-enlisted in the Montana Army National Guard. With a job for Kalispell’s Public Works Department, Faust wasn’t pressured by the economy into re-enlisting. Instead, he said he simply missed it.

When asked what he missed, Faust’s reply was straightforward: “The camaraderie,” he said. “The Army, it’s more like a family.”

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