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Recruited by the Economy: Will Older Recruits Stay?

Oprah was Tyler’s real recruiter. When Tyler and his then-girlfriend Cathy were living in Michigan, they struggled to make ends meet. He was a student. She was working at a call center.

“Oprah offered a free Kentucky Grilled Chicken dinner as a promo,” remembered Cathy. “The lobby was FULL of people. Wall to wall. They let us know it was a 45 minute wait unless we took the fried chicken ... We took the fried!”

They also took Oprah’s chicken as a sign that the economy wasn’t getting any better. At age 23, Tyler went down to the recruiter and joined the Army.

Nearly half of all recruits were older.

Tyler is one of many people who joined the military as “older recruits” at that time. Nearly half of all recruits in 2009/2010 timeframe were “older.” They didn’t join right out of high school like traditional recruits. They had some college. Some work experience. Some life experience.

When the RAND Corporation studied these older recruits, they found that these soldiers were more likely to be married before they joined. They were also more likely to have a close relative in the military—like a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, an uncle, a cousin. Thirty-eight percent of them had a father in the military compared to only 8.2% of the general population.

If they were recruited by the economy (or Oprah) would they make good soldiers? Could they really be retained?

Would it surprise you to know that RAND found that these older recruits were more likely to get promoted and more likely to reenlist than traditional recruits?

Part of their success was probably just due to age and maturity. There is a big difference between you at 18 and you at 21 or 23 or 30.

The thing I thought was insightful was the way the researchers said that the older recruits had one piece of information that high school grads did not have. Like Tyler and Cathy the older recruits knew for sure that their hometown economy had nothing to offer—no jobs or dead end jobs. They had real life experience that informed their choices.

The Army offered a second chance.

“For these young Americans, the Army represented a second chance,” wrote the authors of the study.

Even though these recruits “overwhelmingly understood” that they were going to combat, they joined anyway because it was better than what was available back home.

That factor helped us all when the economy was bad and we needed soldiers, Marines, Coasties, airmen and sailors. We were happy to take them.

But I can’t help but wonder what will happen now that economy is improving? What will happen as benefits are under attack? What will happen as a hundred thousand soldiers are released into the economy?

Will it be so easy to recruit those second-chancers?

Will it be so easy to recruit those seeking a second chance at a successful career?  Will it be so easy to recruit  those soldiers who were more likely to promote and reenlist?

“Tyler has decided in this era of cutbacks he will ETS in a year and a half,” Cathi told me. “He will be taking his GI Bill and go back to school for law.”

I bet they will be just fine -- good on ‘em.

It’s the recruiters I worry about. The Army. The Department of Defense. The nation. Decisions we make now affect our future in ways we ought to be able to predict by now -- but don't.

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