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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 13, 2006

Recruiting woes to get panel's attention

By Tom Philpott

Greater congressional oversight of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more open discussion of recruiting and retention challenges, are among the likely outcomes of Democrats' taking control in January.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will chair the House Armed Services Committee, said declines in recruit quality, as well as worrisome trends in retention, will be examined. Skelton is particularly concerned about an exodus of Army senior captains and junior majors with 10 or more years.

The Armed Services Committee will boost its supervisory role by restoring the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Republicans dismantled the panel when they gained control of the House in 1995.

"In the past the Congress has not asked the tough questions or held the administration to account," said Skelton. "That's my primary effort as chairman." He spoke in a conference call with reporters a day after elections established Democrats as majority party for 110th Congress.

In the area of personnel, if quality is allowed to slip, Skelton said, "you can have a major problem. You can have all the fancy weapons systems in the world, but if you don't have the first-rate people to work with them, you haven't gained a great deal."

A new Congressional Budget Office report on recruiting and retention, which Skelton had requested, discusses staffing challenges for all of the services, particularly ground forces rotating through Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report also details a drop in Army recruit quality, as measured by two yardsticks: the percentage of high school graduates among recruits, and their scores on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test.

Non-high-school graduates are almost twice as likely to leave service before completing service obligations, according to performance data. Test scores show a recruit's aptitude, trainability and performance potential.

The Army's most recent recruit-quality data, measured against historical information that defense officials provided separately, confirm that the largest service alone is facing quality slippage not felt in a few decades.

Each branch of service aims to recruit at least 90 percent high school graduates. Also, at least 60 percent of recruits should have entrance test scores in Categories I through IIIA, which is average and above.

Since the war in Iraq, the Army has found those goals hard to meet. In fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30, only 81 percent of Army recruits were graduates. That is the smallest proportion of graduates that the Army has brought in since 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration.

Another concern: The drop in the proportion of graduates is so large 11 percentage points over two years.

Another worry is that the Army usually sees its proportion of high school graduate recruits increase after graduation, in the months of June through September. Last summer, for the first time, no such spike occurred. Army recruiters continued to enlist a surprisingly high proportion of youths who had passed high school equivalency tests or had attendance certificates rather than diplomas.

Entrance test scores, a second quality measure, also show decline. In fiscal 2006, only 61 percent of Army recruits had scores in Categories I through IIIA on their entrance tests. This was the smallest proportion in 21 years of Army recruits who score average or above.

These results occurred through 2006 despite hefty increases in enlistment bonuses, more generous offerings through the Army College Fund and active pay raises set above wage growth in the private sector.

Some manpower analysts believe defense officials have been reluctant to publicize or frankly discuss cracks in recruit quality for the Army. Some suggest politics is the reason, that administration officials fear another talking point for exiting Iraq. Others believe there is legitimate concern about morale. Troops face tough enough challenges without reading or hearing about their declining "quality." It can be a particularly sensitive subject to explore in wartime, most certainly in a war in which troops and their families seem to be the only Americans making wartime sacrifices.