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How the Recession is Boosting the Military

The Dept. of Defense is crowing about its recruiting success in fiscal year '09, and chalking it up -- at least in part -- to the weak economy. From the Washington Post:

The Pentagon, which made the announcement Tuesday, said the economic downturn and rising joblessness, as well as bonuses and other factors, had led more qualified youths to enlist.

The military has not seen such across-the-board successes since the all-volunteer force was established in 1973, after Congress ended the draft following the Vietnam War. In recent years, the military has often fallen short of some of its recruiting targets. The Army, in particular, has struggled to fill its ranks, admitting more high school dropouts, overweight youths and even felons.

Yet during the current budget year, which ended Sept. 30, recruiters met their targets in both numbers and quality for all components of active-duty and reserve forces.

The following chart (using data from here) shows the percentage of recruits over the past two decades that have at least a high school diploma. Indeed, during recessions this ratio tends to rise while in expansions the reverse is true.

The big drop in diploma holders in the Army for the earlier part this decade is no doubt the result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a cutback in the number of recruiters. The effect is less pronounced in the Marines and Navy, where the probability of being wounded or killed in combat is likely lower (at least in the latter).

Another metric the military uses in assessing the success of its recruitment campaigns is the number of "high-quality" enlistees joining the armed forces. To qualify as high-quality, a recruit has to have a high school diploma and have scored in the top three categories of the Armed Forces Qualification Test. (A study mentioned in this Army Times piece found that a 10% increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 3-4% increase in high-quality enlistment. The unemployment rate has increased by about 100% this downturn, but I seriously doubt we'll see a 30-40% increase in high-quality recruits.)

In fact, there are signs that there are fewer high-quality new enlistees in the Army than the military wanted. The data on high-quality entrants for 2009 doesn't seem to be available yet, so I tried to proxy for it with this chart plotting the difference between percentage of recruits with high school diplomas (and mediocre or poor scores) and recruits with high scores on the qualification test:

For the Navy, this measure has been declining for most of the period, meaning that high-quality enlistees comprise a bigger part of the Navy than before. The situation is a little different for the Army, where for the past two years this differential has been increasing. This suggests that the military is still having some problems attracting candidates for the Army, as it wasn't able to match the increase in diploma-ed recruits with a commensurate rise in the number high scoring recruits.