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Unemployed? Don't count on the military

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
An Army recruit takes part in urban warfare training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
An Army recruit takes part in urban warfare training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
  • The military isn't the reliable source of employment that it used to be
  • The Army and Marine Corps are getting smaller
  • Average enlistment bonuses have also fallen

Washington (CNN) -- Friday's government report showing a rise in unemployment shines a light on a new hurdle facing young people in need of work: The military isn't the reliable source of employment that it used to be. The Army and Marine Corps are getting smaller, and now there's a nearly year-long waiting list just to get into boot camp, no matter which branch you want to join.

The shrinking Army and Marine Corps are part of a long-planned reduction in the size of the armed forces.

But the backlog for enlistees is a new issue. Incoming recruits will spend quite a bit of time before they see a Pentagon paycheck.

"Some may take a year or slightly longer, the typical new enlistee would probably be somewhere between 9 and 11 months," Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith wrote in an e-mail.

A lot of it has to do with the economy.

"In a tighter job market, young men and women may be more receptive to learning about the many opportunities the military has to offer, from competitive salaries and compensation packages, extraordinary education benefits, to valuable job skills and leadership training," Smith said.

It's not just a tighter job market that has more people seeking to enlist. Defending America pays better than it used to.

"The average junior enlisted member, typically with just a high school degree, earns approximately $43,000 per year," Smith said. And that doesn't include benefits like free medical care and a government-paid retirement package that kicks in with 20 years of active-duty service.

Smith said that since the war in Afghanistan began, troop salaries and benefits have jumped significantly.

"From 2002-2010, military pay rose 42%, housing allowances have risen 83%," she said.

During the same time period, private-sector salaries rose 32%.

That, in some ways, is a good thing for the Pentagon, because it allows the services to choose the best possible candidates to defend our country.

And the backlog helped former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates end a controversial Army program called stop-loss, in which soldiers were forced to stay in the Army beyond their original enlistment dates in order to fill a personnel shortage. Last month, Gates announced that no more soldiers are being stop-lossed.

But for young people who can't, as hard as they try, find a job in the private sector, the backlog means the military isn't the solution they might have hoped for. For example, even if they get in, they may not get the kind of enlistment bonuses that troops got just a few years ago.

For example, the Army reports that "the average amount of bonus has gone down substantially over the past few years," said Doug Smith, a spokesman for the Army's recruiting office. He said that in 2008, the average bonus for Army enlistees was more than $18,000. It was less than $6,000 last year.

But the services still pay bonuses for hard-to-fill jobs. For example, in the Marines, "the more challenging the occupational field positions are to fill, the higher the bonus," according to recruiting spokesman Maj. John Caldwell.

"Currently, our cryptologic linguists and electronics maintenance technicians get the highest bonus offered at $10,000," he said.

And don't expect the situation to get much better, at least for the Army and Marines. Both services are on a path to reduce the size of their active-duty forces starting next year.

The Army will shrink by about 22,000 people, the Marines by at least 15,000. All that means, if the economy doesn't improve, would-be GIs and leathernecks will be competing with just as many people for even fewer jobs in uniform.