Army tries to identify suitable dropouts

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Army struggling to attract enough “quality” volunteers is enlisting thousands of additional high school dropouts using an experimental screening tool to identify those most likely to complete their enlistments.

The Two Tier Attrition Screen (TTAS) is an added “quality indicator” that officials hope will allow the Army to take in many more high school dropouts with greater confidence they won’t drive up attrition rates.

Years of research have shown that high school dropouts are more prone to be discipline problems in service and to be discharged early. The first-term attrition rate for non-graduates typically is 50 percent, almost double that of high school diploma graduates.

In fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30, the Army brought in 5,900 non-high school graduates as TTAS (pronounced T-TAS) recruits. Not only do such recruits help the Army reach its numerical recruiting goals but the Army can exclude these recruits when calculating the percentage of high school diploma graduates recruited, which is an important quality measure.

For example, the Army announced last month that 81 percent of its non-prior service recruits for 2006 were high school graduates. That was disturbingly below the 90 percent Department of Defense standard for every service. But the proportion of high school graduates would have been reported as 74.3 percent if the Army had to count the 5,900 TTAS enlistees high school dropouts. The number instead is ignored.

In March, Defense officials gave the Army permission to sign up 8,000 TTAS recruits a year to ease increasingly difficult recruiting challenges.

The Army began to recruit up to 4,000 specially screened non-graduates, and to exclude them from quality calculations, in fiscal 2000. The recruits needed to pass a high school equivalency exam, called the GED. They also were screened using a special test to assess motivation, developed by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

The “GED-Plus” recruits, as they were called, had attrition rates not much lower than that of high school dropouts. So in April 2005, the Army fielded TTAS, an improved screening tool. It combines a better motivation test with minimum score requirements on the math and word-knowledge portions of the military entrance exam. Finally, TTAS screens non-diploma recruits using weight-to-height proportions also called a body mass index.

Only time will tell how effective TTAS is for screening high school dropouts to control first-term attrition. But it looks promising, according to preliminary findings presented in report for the Army Research Institute by researchers Mark C. Young and Leonard A. White.

Recruits who comply with the TTAS standard have a six-month attrition rate of 6.2 percent, which is near to 5.6 percent reported for high school graduates. It’s much better than 10.3 percent attrition after six months for non-high school graduates who failed the TTAS standard.

Non-high school graduates, the authors point out, are “relatively inexpensive to recruit and some … do make very good soldiers.” They project that TTAS could save the Army $100 million a year by lowering recruiting costs an average of $10,000 per recruit for up to 10,000 recruits a year.

Two generals, two views: Two Army generals addressed a symposium Nov. 16 on sustaining the volunteer force through the long wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. They disagreed on current recruit quality.

Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, put on a happy face.

“I hope everyone is as pleased as I am with the U.S. Army’s recruiting success for 2006. A very, very successful year,” he said.

He noted that the active Army exceeded its goal on numbers of recruits. He gave numbers too for the Reserve and National Guard but failed to mention that they fell 1,000 and 1,600 recruits short of goal, respectively.

Rochelle referred to a “very challenging recruiting environment” but he did not blame, say, a divisive war in Iraq. Instead, he said, youth are “being influenced by what they see in the liberal media, both about the nature and the quality of the force … But I’m here to tell you it’s a magnificent force … by every measure of quality (including) the economic strata from which they come, certainly patriotism, and even education and aptitude, morals.”

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey also showered praise on current forces, particularly the caliber of non-commissioned officers. But he said it’s long past time for the Bush administration to level with Americans about both the impact of Iraq and Afghanistan on the Army and about the urgent need to expand U.S. ground forces to fight the global war on terrorism.

“This is a problem of resources and political will,” McCaffrey said to vigorous applause from 300 attendees at the professional symposium sponsored by the Military Officers Association of America.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com