Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Brandon Smith wants to study finance at UNR and maybe become an accountant someday. But college is expensive, so last Friday, he and his mother, Carolyn Evans, dropped in on military recruiters in Las Vegas, in hopes of signing up.
“I’ve been thinking about it ever since I turned a senior,” said Smith, who graduated from high school three months ago and just celebrated his 18th birthday. “I looked into it because I want to go to college, and right now it’s hard for any of my family to give me money to go to college.”
Five years ago, someone like Smith would have been a perfect candidate for the military: A high school graduate with career goals and a passing aptitude test score could expect not just a helping hand with college, but signing bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
That was then. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, the services are looking for fewer and fewer good men and women, and this selectivity is hitting Las Vegas youth especially hard.
While most urban areas have been slowly recovering from the recession, Las Vegas’ unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high, a nation-leading 14 percent. The military’s now-waning interest in recruits complicates an already critical problem.
“As a result of the number of enlistments we have to have going down, we have become more selective,” said Army 6th Recruiting Brigade Deputy Commander David Gilbert, who spoke to the Sun at the Army’s western recruiting command headquarters in North Las Vegas. “Even those who have completed their degrees, because of the economy, are finding it harder to find a job, so they’re coming and looking to the military as a way to gain employment.”
During the peak war years, the Army’s annual recruiting goal, or “mission” as it is called, was 80,000. But since 2009, it has started to fall off faster than would-be recruits’ interest. This fiscal year (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30), the Army needs 64,000 nationwide, 14,886 of whom have to come from the 6th’s district.
They passed that threshold in July.
“We haven’t turned anybody away,” Gilbert said. “But we used to give you money to leave within the month. Today when you sign up, you’re most likely heading off to training in six to nine months.”
The unofficial waiting period lets the military forward-count recruits, since they aren’t fully recruited until they head to basic training. But that means when the new recruiting year begins Oct. 1, the Army will already have signed up 35,000 of the 64,000 they’ll need to enlist in fiscal 2012.
“Some people, they don’t want to wait that long, so they self-disqualify, they ... walk away ... and even though they’re under contract, the government does not force that issue. Not when you have a six- to nine-month waiting period,” Gilbert said. “You need a job now, you really can’t wait six to nine months to go off and start employment. They’ll go to the other services, but the other services are in the same situation.”
All four branches of the military, and the Army Reserves, have offices at the Decatur Boulevard recruiting station where Smith and his mother went to inquire about the recent grad’s options. Staff Sgt. Jonathan Quarry is in charge of the station.
“When I first got here, we had to put an average of 16 people on a month,” Quarry said. “Now, it’s down to ... six.”
In 2008, a comparison of Army recruiting figures and population estimates for 15- to 24-year-olds showed that Nevada ranked second nationally in recruits per capita, lagging behind only Alabama.
Seventeen- to 24-year-olds are the “prime market” for recruits, who average 21.4 years of age when they enlist — though Gilbert estimates that for Las Vegas, it’s younger.
“This city’s been a good recruiting town because most of the jobs around here that support the casinos require people to be 21 or older,” Gilbert said. “You can’t work in a lot of these places that serve alcohol or have gambling and stuff, so what do you do? If you don’t go to college in this state, you’re stuck working at McDonald’s. Not stuck, but your options are limited.”
The Labor Department does not keep state-by-state statistics for unemployed youth, but nationwide, it’s double the rate for the total workforce: 18.1 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds compared with 9.1 percent across the board.
In Nevada, which has one of the country’s lowest college-attainment rates, that number is likely higher, making the slow disappearance of the military option all the more noticeable.
“I don’t see as much recruiting for the last two years,” said Ricky Taylor, a guidance counselor for the past six years at Mojave High School.
Taylor, who administers the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test to students each December, says the military isn’t the option it used to be. “My problem now is there are so many people out of work on the outside, they can pick up a 21- or a 22-year-old who’s mature, before they pick up an 18-year-old.”
It’s a message that some in that in-between age range have gotten loud and clear.
Cristian Castellanos, 19, graduated from high school a year ago, and has since worked at McDonald’s, and now takes jobs as a cook at casinos when he can get them. He’s been thinking about the Air Force for a while.
Castellanos is clean-cut, fit and articulate. He says he “got serious junior year” and did well in school, and has about a year of college though it got too expensive this year to keep going. That might seem to be a good time to think about the services again, but with reduced enlistment incentives and tougher entrance requirements, he’s taking his chances at finding a job through Nevada JobConnect.
“I wanted to get some college credits first, then I could go in as an officer,” he said as he waited for an appointment with a career services counselor. “I’m just looking out for anything, anything to take care of my family.”
Requirements for getting in as an officer have gone up too.
“In 1990, you had to have a two-year degree ... today we take nobody but a four-year bachelor’s degree,” Gilbert said. And even with a degree, “if you’re going to seek the Army to serve as an officer, you’re going to have at least a 3.0 (grade-point average) or better. It’s become very competitive.”
That trickles down to the enlisted soldiers too. The official minimum ASVAB score to enlist is 31, but recruiting officers say there are no guarantees for anyone who scores lower than a 50, and the average recruit is scoring around 66.
“It’s 10th grade-level stuff but the way the education system works here, a lot of people don’t pass it,” Quarry said.
A Las Vegas native, Quarry explained that because scores are based on national percentiles and not the percentage of correct answers, it puts Southern Nevada hopefuls at a disadvantage. “You’d be really surprised how many kids can’t score above a 30. But if their scores aren’t there ... you gotta be honest with them,” he said.
Parts of the test came as a rude shock to 19-year-old Clarisse Ruiz, who came to the Decatur recruiting center with her mother and grandmother, thinking she could easily parlay her two years of nursing school into a medical staff position with the Air Force — a branch of the service she said she was drawn to because it “isn’t as involved in the wars ... and I don’t want to be deployed.”
“I did good in math and English,” Ruiz said. “But I don’t know a lot about the mechanical stuff.”
Ruiz’s misconceptions about the enlistment requirements are all too common, said Kip Kowalski, a retired Army officer who runs a Junior ROTC program at Mojave High School.
“The military is becoming very technical ... Kids today, they think just because they have an Xbox, ‘I can be a computer scientist,’ ” Kowalski said. “But more than the kids, it’s the parents. The parents are seeing things are tough out there, so they say well ‘here’s a job, think about the military.’ Then all of a sudden, they’re not qualified.
“I tell the kids don’t join the service just for the benefits,” Kowalski continued. “There is a very good possibility you will go to war. It’s like having a cop down the street from you — hopefully we don’t need ’em ... but that’s just the nature of the military.”
It’s a reality that gave Smith, the would-be accountant, pause as he considered his future.
At the Decatur recruiting station, Smith was told that the Navy recruiter he had come to speak to wasn’t in — and to come back later.
That’s when Quarry rushed to offer Smith and Evans an alternative: Try the Army Reserves instead, if college is what you want. “They pay for your college, but it’s also part time ... and they’re the only ones that are actually offering higher enlistment bonuses.”
“That’s what he wants to do, live the campus life, major in accounting,” Evans said, turning to her son. “That’s another option that wasn’t made available to you at first. But now you know ... why are you hesitating?”
Smith looked at the ground and didn’t answer.
He had said earlier that the Navy could be a four-year commitment or maybe even a full-fledged career. That he wouldn’t likely be going into battle made enlisting easier.
The Army Reserves though, would be geared toward being combat-ready, and tack at least another six years of service onto four years of school he hadn’t started yet — and who knows what happens then.
“My son kind of has butterflies in his stomach,” Evans said. “He wants to do this but he wants to make sure once he does it and signs up, he’s making the right decision. And I don’t want to force him.”