Special Report Your Job

Jobless flock to sign up for the military

The anemic job market, an increase in sign-on bonuses and new attitudes towards military service are proving to be a winning combination for recruiting.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The nation's armed services wrapped up a record year for recruiting as a withering job market and bigger bonuses trumped two unpopular wars.

The Department of Defense said it met or exceeded recruitment goals for all branches of the armed services for fiscal year 2009, which ended Sept. 30, for the first time since 1973, when the draft ended and U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam.

"We're pleased to report that for the first time since the advent of the all-volunteer force, all of the military components, active and reserve, meet their number as well as their quality goals," said Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, at a Pentagon press conference on Tuesday.

The active-duty Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy all met their goals, as measured by the number of fresh recruits, while the Army achieved 108% of its recruitment goals, the DOD said. The Reserves for each branch exceeded their goals for recruitment numbers, and the National Guard matched its goal.

The Pentagon also exceeded its quality goals, as 96% of the active-duty recruits were high-school graduates, surpassing a 90% benchmark.

Carr acknowledged that the high level of unemployment in the civilian job market was helping the military draw recruits, and the earning power of recruits puts them in the top 10% of workers of commensurate age, education and experience.

Recruits typically earn $1,399.50 a month as they undergo basic training during their first few months in the military, according to the DOD. Most enlisted personnel can expect to earn $1,568.70 a month by the end of their first year, which translates into an annual salary of $18,824.40.

Carr also attributed recruiting success to new attitudes among young adults that make them more eager to serve, regardless of the state of economy. He said the generation born between 1978 and 1996 "witnessed 9/11" and is "more inclined toward service to society" than other generations.

The only real disadvantage to recent recruiting, said Carr, is a decline in medical eligibility from the growing prevalence of obesity in the U.S. population. One in 20 Americans aged 17 to 24 were considered obese in the 1980s, he said, compared to one in four today.

An Army of One, and a bonus of $18,000

According to Beth Asch, military recruiting expert for the Rand Corporation, a non-profit think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., economic incentives are the most important factor in drawing recruits. She said the Army dramatically increased its recruitment bonuses since the start of the Iraq war, to an average of $18,000 for the 70% who are eligible.

"The effect of Iraq has had a negative impact on recruiting," said Asch. "[The military] responded with a dramatic increase in recruiting resources. In the case of the Army, the average bonuses tripled."

For the military overall, 40% of recruits in 2009 received a sign-on bonus that averaged $14,000, according to the DOD. Bonuses are provided to recruits for a variety of factors, including $5,000 for having a college degree. Military personnel also received a 3.9% pay raise in fiscal year 2009, following a rise of 3.5% the prior year.

Members of the military also receive free healthcare. Once the recruits move out of the barracks, they become eligible for a monthly food allowance of $323.87 and a monthly housing allowance that averages $952 nationwide -- or more, if they have dependents. In addition, they are not required to pay taxes while serving in a combat zone.

Asch said the pay, bonuses and other benefits are strong enticements to young people trying to make their way in a civilian job market where unemployment is at a 26-year high of 9.8%.

"Had there been no change in recruiting resources, had there been no change in the economy, there would have been a significant drop off in recruiting," she said. "All our research show that recruits respond to recruiting resources. The military got lucky in the sense that when the economy worsens, recruitment improves."

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk of the Army said the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not dissuaded people from joining the military.

"A lot of people say the wars are hurting recruiting, but the numbers don't back that up," he said. "The expectation there is that you're going to go to war. This is not a surprise to anybody, and it has not affected recruitment." To top of page

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