Six years ago, the military needed all the people it could get, as the United States fought two big wars. Standards were lower; you didn’t have to have a high school diploma. In fact, in 2007, only 79 percent of new Army recruits were high school graduates. Recruiters took just about everyone who walked in their door.
Army Sergeant Richard Guzman remembers those days.
Guzman started his recruiting duty in New York City in 2005. Back then, it was pretty common for the Army to grant waivers excusing past misconduct, even felonies. The recruiters request the waivers when they come across a recruit who seems promising, but has a record.
Sergeant Guzman says in 2005, "Like every waiver was approved. I don’t think I ever had a waiver disapproved. I processed applicants with possession waivers, rape, assault. Felonies, drugs.”
Sergeant Guzman is still requesting waivers. But now, he’s lucky to get 10 percent approved. If recruits have any blemishes on their records, let alone a felony, they’re out of luck. About 96 percent of the Army’s new recruits in fiscal 2012 had high school diplomas.
Sergeant Guzman doesn’t work in New York anymore. Now, he heads the Army recruiting office in Silver Spring, Md. He says just look at the caliber of his latest recruits. There are six of them here at an orientation class sitting in a circle, introducing themselves.
One of Guzman's new recuits is Paul Driskell. He's 22. He graduated from high school in 2008 and he even has a few years of college under his belt. He says he always wanted to join the military, but he was surprised at how hard it was.
“I had to do a lot of tests," he explains. "Physical tests and mental stuff. You know, checking out, making sure you’re OK in the head. You know -- your vision, sight. So much stuff that it gets overwhelming sometimes.”
Yes, the military is getting more picky. It doesn’t have as many slots to fill. But also, the youth unemployment rate is sky-high.
“The teen unemployment rate has been above 20 percent for about four and a half years now," says Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute. "Which is basically something we’ve never seen before, for young adults.”
And even if these young adults land jobs, they may not get benefits. Which makes a military career -- with health insurance, a housing allowance, and money for college -- even more tempting.