Attrition: Finding The Winners Among The Losers

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October 24, 2007: Every war changes the way troops are trained, usually because peacetime training tends to drift away from what is needed in wartime. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has been no different. But in addition to training everyone on how to survive convoy duty in hostile territory, the current war has also spurred more research on what it takes to be an exceptional soldier. Interestingly enough, this line of research is very popular in the business and academic world. Colleges have increasingly been looking for tools, besides SAT scores, to determine who would benefit most from a college education. It's long been known that some college students start off tagged as poor prospects, but then go on to do great work. Same thing in business, where employers are seeking better tools to find the hidden hot shots.

For decades, the army has been trying to find new screening methods that would identify the late bloomers. The techniques the army uses now are somewhat controversial, as they include recruiting more people who did not graduate from high school, or have had trouble with the law (drugs or petty crime). For decades, it's been accepted that the most successful recruits are those who have graduated from high school, and have no police record. But the army has long known that many high school drop outs, or young people with police records, can make excellent soldiers. Most don't, but some do.

The problem has always been determining which of the drop outs and juvenile delinquents were worth letting in. The problem with these potential recruits is that they are more expensive to train (because of disciplinary problems, or difficulty learning) and are more likely to be tossed out (thus wasting all that was invested in their training.) In the last decade, the army has made a lot of progress in improving how accurately it screens risky candidates. It's not just the improved selection process, but improved training methods as well. A lot of high school drop outs were poorly served by bad urban schools. Similarly, many of those with criminal records had already put that sort of thing behind them, and were looking to the army for a new beginning. While it's something of a cliché that "bad boys" often turn into good soldiers, anyone who has been in the service can tell you of examples they served with. It does happen, and the army wants to develop better ways of predicting who the changelings are.

Until recently, less than ten percent of army recruits had been high school dropouts. But in the last decade, that has grown to 24 percent, with no noticeable decline in the quality of troops. Same thing with those receiving "moral waivers" (for having a police record). That has gone from 4.6 percent four years ago, to 6.2 percent.

The army has had the most problem recruiting troops for non-combat jobs. Patriotism, low casualties,and a sense of adventure, brings in plenty of recruits for the infantry. But with support jobs, the army is competing with the civilian economy, which has been booming of late. But the boom has mainly been for those who graduated from school. Thus the army is attractive to drop outs, and this has presented the opportunity to find those drop outs who are truly ready to succeed. But the army has to be quick, because the civilian "human resources" community has been watching the army effort with great interest. Whatever the army can do, civilian recruiters can do as well, and restore the competition for recruits, that the army usually loses.

 


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