Attrition: Desperately Searching For The Skinny


October 16, 2009: The U.S. Department of Defense had its best recruiting year ever, as all the services exceeded their goals. Most of that can be attributed to the recession and an unemployment rate of nearly ten percent. But another factor, largely ignored by the media during the last eight years of war, is patriotism and a desire for service. These attitudes are particularly strong among the young people the recruiters were after, but not so much among those who decide what is news, and what isn’t. Reporters, if they note anything, concentrate on those who enlisted for adventure and new experiences. Many do, in addition to the patriotism angle.

With the flood of new applicants, the military was able to be more selective. The average recruit is now in the 90th percentile of ability. Still, there were problems. Some 70 percent of high school graduates now go on to college. The military still gets a lot of them, with the ROTC program (which pays for tuition, for those who pass their military courses and qualify to become officers. Most do.) Many do not succeed, at first, in college. Many of these then choose the military, if only because of the generous GI Bill college benefits after only four years of service.

Even with the 30 percent of kids who graduate from high school, nearly half of them have physical (most are overweight), psychological (can't handle the stress or discipline) or legal (have a felony on their record) problems that keep them out. The felony item can be waivered, if the applicant has shown progress since their conviction.

There are over 2.5 million high school graduates a year, leaving the recruiters with nearly 800,000 potential recruits to work with. The military needs less than 20 percent of those. So even with all the other problems, the military can still get the high quality recruits they need.

The recession fueled boom in enlistments has allowed the army to raise its recruiting standards again. Two years ago, recruiting standards had been lowered and screening methods improved. Before the fighting in Iraq got bloody (2004-7), less than ten percent of army recruits had been high school dropouts. But during that period, 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 six years ago, to 6.2 percent in 2007. Now all those standards are going back to the pre-2003 levels.