Army Meets Recruiting Goals -- Surprise Success or Accounting Trick?

Two months into what most expected to be a miserable year for recruiting, the Army has exceeded its goals.

That doesn't mean selling military service in wartime is any easier for recruiters. It's more a matter of accounting.

In November, the Army set a goal that was 1,200 recruits fewer than the same month's goal a year ago.

In October, the first month of the recruiting year, the goal was lowered even more -- by more than 2,200.

That month the Army also accepted three times as many people who tested at a middle-school reading level -- prospects who wouldn't have been accepted last year. The Army would not release November's data on recruit quality.

The annual goal for all Army recruits remains the same as last year -- 80,000. So every lowered monthly goal increases the challenge for recruiters to meet when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2006.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty says shifting goals is not a matter of spin -- just smart business.

The winter months, he says, are traditionally lean for recruiters.

"They're spending more time now talking to high seniors," Hilferty said. "Asking about what they are doing next summer."

The hope is that those months of salesmanship will pay off with a signed contract after graduation, when young people are more focused on the future.

"Just like a Honda dealer," Hilferty said. "We give out goals based on expected market missions. … And some months produce less recruits than others."

November is the sixth consecutive month that the Army has met its self-imposed goals. But even the most senior Pentagon leaders have forecast that 2006 will be one of the most difficult recruiting years in Army history.

Shaking Up the Ad Campaign

With no end in sight to the cycle of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army fell almost 6,600 recruits short last year. It was not for lack of trying.

Officials say recruiters routinely work 80-hour weeks, much of it spent cajoling skeptical parents. Protesters are increasingly a problem at recruiting stations. Then there are "counter-recruiters," who try to talk students out of joining.

Recruiters do, however, have many carrots to dangle, including a $20,000 signing bonus, $65,000 in student loan repayments, $70,000 in college grants, and a $400 monthly bonus to some who agree up front to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are also plans for mortgage assistance and other incentives.

The Army also has shaken up its advertising team, replacing the ad firm responsible for the current "Army of One" recruiting campaign.

The McCann Erickson firm was recently awarded a five-year, $1.35 billion advertising contract to provide "a full range of services from developing a tactical advertising strategy to producing advertising using numerous communications methods -- including television, radio, print and Internet site, direct marketing, promotions and events."

The military's highest-ranking former recruiter, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says selling service is a job for more than just recruiters and advertisers.

"There are thousands and thousands of young men and women out there who want to serve this country," Pace said at a Pentagon briefing last summer. "They want to know from their parents, they want to know from the media, they want to know from their government leaders that we value their service and what they are doing to provide freedom around the world. If we get that message to them, there will be plenty of folks enlisting."