SEATTLE – Army recruiters in Seattle can earn a Friday off for each new soldier they enlist. But in a city with a thriving tech industry and a long history of antiwar protests, the recruiters haven’t gotten many long weekends.
“It’s no secret we’re a little behind,” Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Vargas, who heads the city’s recruiting station, told four recruiters at a recent morning pep talk. With a week left in the month, he wrote the station’s goal — five recruits — on a white board, and then the current tally: two.
“What do we need to make mission?” he asked.
One recruiter responded with a shrug, “A miracle.”
The Army is not quite counting on miracles, but after falling 6,500 soldiers short of its goal nationwide in 2018, it is trying a new strategy that might seem almost as unlikely.
Rather than focus on more conservative regions of the country that traditionally fill the ranks, the Army plans a big push in 22 left-leaning cities, like Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, where relatively few recruits have signed up.
“We want to go into Boston, Pittsburgh, Kansas City,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the head of Army Recruiting Command. “These are places with a large number of youth who just don’t know what the military is about.”
The approach might seem like hunting for snow in Miami. But Army leaders say that all they need to attract enlistees in those cities are a surge of recruiters and the right sales pitch.
The pitch they have used for years, playing down combat and emphasizing job training and education benefits, can work well when civilian opportunities are scarce. But it is a tough sell these days in a place like Seattle, where jobs are plentiful and the local minimum wage of $15 an hour beats the base pay for privates, corporals or specialists.
Instead, Muth said, the Army wants to frame enlistment as a patriotic detour for motivated young adults who might otherwise be bound for a corporate cubicle — a detour that promises a chance for public service, travel and adventure.
“You want to do a gap year?” the general said. “Come do your gap year in the Army.” (Figuratively speaking, of course: Enlistees commit to serve for two to six years.)
For decades, Army recruiting has relied disproportionately on a crescent-shaped swath of the country stretching from Virginia through the South to Texas, where many military bases are found and many families have traditions of service. Young people there enlist at two to three times the rate of other regions.
By contrast, in the big metropolitan areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, young people are less likely to have a parent, teacher or coach who served in the military, which can be a major factor in deciding to enlist. And in those regions, many high schools openly discourage recruiters from interacting with students.
When the Seattle recruiters visit schools, they are sometimes met by antiwar “counter-recruiting action teams” who call attention to civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and the high rate of sexual assault in the military.
“Legally, the high schools have to let us in, but a lot of times, they’ll just ignore our calls,” Vargas said. “A lot of schools don’t want us to talk to their kids. They want them to go to college, and see the military as a last resort.”
Those cold shoulders were easy to ignore when the jobless rate was above 6 percent and the Army’s most dependable recruiter, Sgt. Hard Times, was driving high school graduates to enlist. But now, unemployment has fallen to 50-year lows.
“Whenever that happens, the Army faces recruiting challenges,” said David R. Segal, a sociologist who advises the military on recruiting. “But they have always doubled down on areas where they know they can get results. This is a 180-degree turn.”
The Seattle recruiters often feel as if they are getting nowhere. Two of them stood for hours at a recent job fair in the shadow of the Space Needle without getting a single prospect. An ultimate Frisbee coach with an engineering degree stopped to talk, but he said later that he did it mostly because they “looked a little lonely.”
At a high school event later in the day, students were happy to sign up to for a skateboard raffle, but none made an appointment to meet with a recruiter.