Recruiters deserve praise

Recent news reports about improprieties by military recruiters and failures to meet recruiting goals have unfairly besmirched the image of recruiters and falsely implied that the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns are mainly responsible for recruiting shortfalls. Numerous research projects over the past decade have demonstrated that recruiters have not been given the tools they need to succeed and that efforts by educators to block recruiting in our schools have hurt the cause more than our nation’s fights for freedom in the Middle East.

Recent news reports about improprieties by military recruiters and failures to meet recruiting goals have unfairly besmirched the image of recruiters and falsely implied that the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns are mainly responsible for recruiting shortfalls.

Numerous research projects over the past decade have demonstrated that recruiters have not been given the tools they need to succeed and that efforts by educators to block recruiting in our schools have hurt the cause more than our nation’s fights for freedom in the Middle East.

About five years ago, I first learned about the recruiting game when conducting focus groups of recruiters and recent recruits. These groups were convened in every region of the country and included recruiters from every branch of the service and their recruits.

Like good theater, the best focus groups can sear into your mind certain characters and scenes that never fade from memory. In particular, I remember the recruiters.

Characters who would put Arthur Miller’s failing salesman Willy Loman to shame appeared daily before me. These were suffering souls, confronting pressure from above to meet monthly goals. They were often being blocked in their efforts by peacenik schoolteachers and guidance counselors. Their spouses were angry with them because of the long hours they were forced to spend chasing recruits.

Even new technology seemed to mock them. Caller ID from their recruiting offices caused potential recruit households to see calls coming in from the “U S Government.” In some households, that implied IRS tax auditors, immigration officials or firearms regulators were doing the dialing. That didn’t get calls answered. So some recruiters had taken to using personal cell phones to make recruit calls, using expensive minutes for their work, further alienating their impoverished spouses.

As for the recent recruits, interviewed immediately after completion of their basic training, there were scattered complaints of the kind we have seen recently in the news that recruiters had misrepresented certain aspects of military life and service. In particular, some felt that they had not been allowed to enter the specialty area promised by their recruiters.

But for every story of this ilk, I heard moving accounts of recruiters holding early-morning pre-induction workouts in which they became personal trainers to get recruits ready for the physical rigors they would soon face, or of recruiters who wrote inductees letters of encouragement and inspiration during their basic training. Selfless service of this sort is not what the media care to broadcast. They’re on a mission to bash the military and recruiters.

What amazed me most was what the recruiters seemed to think mattered most in doing their jobs. Most didn’t believe that massive national advertising campaigns or snappy slogans (“Army of one,” “Be all that you can be,” “The few, the proud, the Marines,” etc.) were of prime importance. They were more interested in local advertising. Recruiters wanted personal business cards and billboards with their names and faces. They wanted specialty advertising giveaways such as T-shirts, ball caps and Frisbees to give away to kids.

While some reported little difficulty in getting items such as these, others told tales of deprivations. Some asked for T-shirts but would get key chains instead because some higher-up a thousand miles away thought he knew better. Others couldn’t get anything at all sometimes. Given the importance of the recruiting mission, shouldn’t these supply problems be given at least a percentage of the attention that the media lavished on a few demands for military vehicle armor in Iraq?

The findings of my research were not unique. I recently reviewed an “annotated bibliography of recruiting research” published in 2001 by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Several studies described therein make it clear that recruiting for our armed services had myriad challenges long before the Iraq war and that it’s simply wrong to lay all the blame for recruiting shortfalls on today’s recruiters or the war.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.