Older Army recruits signal weak youth labor market

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Army recruits are getting older, with fewer going straight from high school to boot camp. Instead, many are dipping their toes in the civilian job market, and they don't like what they see.

Since the early 1990s, the percentage of Army recruits signing on the dotted line immediately after receiving their high school diplomas has declined from 65 percent to 44 percent, according to a report today from the RAND Corporation. Enlisting among twenty-somethings, however, is on the rise.

About one-third of RAND's 5,373 survey respondents who delayed enlisting in the Army said no jobs were available to them in the civilian world, while almost 50 percent said their employment situations offered little in terms of career advancement.

Online job postings won't help this group of employees
Online job postings won't help this group of employees

"Older recruits had tested the world of work and found it wanting," said the report, which looked at reasons why that cohort passed on enlisting at age 18 and what factors led them to reverse that decision.

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In addition to initial optimism about civilian job prospects, the specter of war also deterred many young recruits from signing up in their teenage years. The survey, conducted from 2008 through 2009, found that a portion of those who delayed enlistment were concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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"For these older recruits, the Army provided a second chance," said Bernard Rostker, the report's lead author. "Joining the Army gave them an opportunity to leave home and start again—even though they understood that in doing so, they were likely to be deployed to a combat zone. But that didn't deter them."

That second chance, however, won't be available to as many Americans in the next few years. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the Army plans to trim its ranks from the current force of 520,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000—the lowest since World War II. If the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration resume as scheduled in October 2015, troop levels could dip to 420,000.

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Fifty-six percent of active-duty Army recruits were at least 20 years old, according to the RAND report. That compares with 33 percent for the Marine Corps, 50 percent for the Air Force and 53 percent for the Navy.

Some of the Army's older recruits decided to further their education at trade schools, while others simply took a break after high school. Either way, both groups were in good company with their peers. Government figures released yesterday show that in 2013, the percentage of high school graduates enrolled in a college or university had dropped to 65.9 percent, from 66.2 percent the previous year.

So what's the draw for those who still go straight from high school to the military? One big draw is the economic security. Respondents noted that Army recruiters who visited their high schools spelled out specific pay and benefits offered by a life in uniform, whereas the civilian workforce, particularly during the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, seemed more volatile.

"This uncertainty will drive some to join the military," the report said.

The unemployment rate for 18-and 19-year-old U.S. residents last month was 20.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure drops to 12.2 percent for those aged 20 to 24. The national jobless rate in March was 6.7 percent.

By Timothy R. Homan of The Fiscal Times