Weak California economy boosts military recruiting

Published: Sunday, Jul. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 22, 2012 - 4:51 pm

Military recruiters may be the only people happy about the faltering economy because the high unemployment rate in Northern California is buoying recruitment numbers despite a dearth of eligible candidates.

Rampant obesity and a lack of education has made it difficult nationally for the U.S. military to find fresh recruits for several years.

But a relentlessly poor economy has the eligible lining up for spots in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force for salaries that start at $1,491 a month, medical benefits and a monthly housing allowance.

"Here in Northern California, Stockton and Modesto has some of the highest unemployment in the nation, making the military a more viable option," said Rod Kise, spokesman for the U.S. Army's Recruiting Battalion – Sacramento, which covers Northern California, southern Oregon and parts of Nevada.

Air Force officials report the same trend nationwide. "When the economy dipped down we saw an increase of traffic in our office," said Christa D'Andrea, a spokeswoman at the Air Force Recruiting Service headquarters in San Antonio. "It's very competitive to join the Air Force right now."

The result: Recruits are getting older.

Kise said that more men and women in their mid-20s are signing up instead of the 17- to 24-year-olds that usually make up the bulk of new recruits.

"We are seeing more families – husbands and wives," Kise said. They are looking for paychecks and benefits to help care for their families, he said.

Lt. Col. Eric Espino, commander of the 364th Air Force Recruiting Squadron at Mather Park in Sacramento, said the recent influx of candidates also can be attributed to the high cost of college and an expanded GI Bill that helps veterans pay for college.

He said other candidates are looking to the Air Force for technical training.

On Wednesday, Kevin Langford of the Arden area was filling out paperwork at the Army recruitment center on Howe Avenue. Framed jerseys from nearby Encina, Rio Americano and El Camino high schools and Sacramento State hung on the walls above the recruiters' desks.

The 22-year-old recruit attended Butte Community College for 18 months before deciding to join the Army and then had to wait a few more years to resolve a medical issue. He expects to be on active duty early next year.

"I couldn't picture anything else I wanted to do," he said. "I want to serve my country."

The current high demand for military jobs makes up for the fact that 75 percent of all non-incarcerated people in the United States ages 17 to 24 are ineligible to enter the military, according to Department of Defense data.

The majority lack a diploma, can't pass the entrance test, have a criminal record or are obese, according to a study released Thursday by "Mission: Readiness," a nonprofit made up of retired senior military officers.

Health concerns discovered in the physical are the primary reason that would-be Army recruits in California are turned away, Kise said.

Obesity is one of the major obstacles to military recruitment, according to the Mission: Readiness report. Nationally one in four young adults has too much body fat to be allowed in the military, the report states.

"The young adults in California would have to collectively lose weight equal to more than 400 Abrams tanks in order to reach a healthy weight," it says.

Locally, Yolo County has the most overweight youths, with 35 percent of its ninth-grade students overweight, according to 2010-11 data from the California Department of Education. Sacramento County isn't far behind with 33 percent of ninth-graders overweight. The wealthier counties of El Dorado and Placer fare better with 25 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of their ninth-graders overweight, respectively.

Sgt. John Love and his staff at the Army recruitment center on Howe Avenue actively help overweight candidates lose pounds, allowing them to work out with them in the office or to run with them on the American River bike path.

"If they stick with us, we give them the opportunity to lose the weight," Love said.

D'Andrea said that the primary reason people are turned away from the Air Force is the inability to score at least a 36 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, known as the ASVAB. The minimum score is the same for all branches of the military.

The higher a recruit scores on the ASVAB, the more job opportunities are available. D'Andrea said candidates that score around 36 often have to wait to enlist until a job opens for which they qualify.

Locally test scores have remained high as more qualified recruits seek jobs. Espino said current Air Force candidates are scoring higher than ever on the military entrance test.

But he expects recruits' scores will go down as the economy improves. "I suspect that if the economy allows these people to look elsewhere, they will," Espino said.

The lack of a diploma is another reason candidates aren't accepted in the military, Kise said. In California, 24 percent of the students don't graduate from high school on time.

Both the Air Force and Army officials say that because of budget cuts and a steady stream of recruits, entrance requirements have actually become stricter.

Kise said people are surprised when they find out about the strict requirements to enter the service. "A lot of people think they can just walk in and join," he said.

Department of Defense spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the number of recruits fluctuates depending on how much money the military spends on advertising, the unemployment rate, war and other factors.

"While it may be less difficult now than a few years ago, we expect recruiting to once again become more challenging as the economy improves," she said.

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