Nicholas Whitaker, 17, was planning to go to college in the fall, but the prospect of graduating deep in debt sent him looking for alternatives.
With a family background in the military, he settled on the Army and ships off to boot camp in August, hoping eventually to end up in air assault school.
“I always wanted to explore new places,” said Nicholas, who graduated last week from Winter Springs High School.
The military already was facing higher recruitment numbers set in December by President Barack Obama. The task would get tougher under President Donald Trump’s newly unveiled budget, which calls for an expansion of all branches except the Army.
An improving economy compounds the difficulty as military leaders search for more young people like Nicholas.
“The talent pool is getting harder and harder to pull from,” said Maj. Bryan Lewis, an Air Force spokesman. “We need America’s best talent from all corners of the U.S., and we’re competing with industry for that.”
In response, the Army, the largest branch of the service, is sweetening the pot. Incentives include two-year active enlistments designed to appeal to people who want to serve between high school and college plus signing bonuses of up to $40,000 depending on career field.
The Air Force and Navy also offer signing bonuses for certain jobs, including explosive ordnance disposal technicians.
The , in contrast, focuses on whether prospects truly want to join and meet the mental, moral and physical requirements, a spokesman said. The branch offers $2,000 to $8,000 for new enlistees for in-demand jobs including supply, accounting, legal, motor transportation, ground, electronics, maintenance, and musician.
Although entry-level military salaries can’t generally compete with the private sector, perks such as schooling, housing and food allowances, and full health care can be alluring to the right demographic, said Barbara Gannon, associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida and an Army veteran.
“They often take the cream from the working class and the very good from the middle class whose parents won’t pay for college,” Gannon said.
Orange County public schools have 381 military commitments from students spread across every high school, Area Superintendent Harold Border said. The largest service branch, the Army, will take 151 new recruits from the county’s high schools, he said.
“They have some very attractive technical programs,” said Border, who joined the Navy for the college money. “You can go in the military and retire after 20 years and still have a full career ahead of you.”
Young people usually sign up for several main reasons, experts said: tuition benefits, patriotism, a history of military service in the family, job training, security and benefits, and travel and adventure.
“The military can help you decide what you want to do, and you get paid,” said Mariah Anderson, 17, a Winter Springs High Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps student who graduated Wednesday. “There are great benefits, and the discipline is great.”
Central Florida has one of the biggest goals for incoming new soldier groups in the U.S. — 700 this year from Orange, Seminole and Lake counties, said Capt. Shaun Tateishi, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Company in Orlando.
But recruiting may get tougher in the coming years — the number of high school graduates is expected to decline through 2023.
Magnifying the issue of low pay, the national economy is continuing to recover from the economic collapse; April’s unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, the lowest in 10 years.
“The economy always drives enlistment,” Army spokesman Carlos Sanders said.
Another complication for recruiters is that 70 percent of today’s young people don’t meet military qualifications. The top reason is obesity, Army recruiters said.
Regardless of the challenges, the number of troops is slated to increase.
Trump has talked extensively about strengthening the military, but it was Obama who before leaving office signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which increased the size of America’s armed forces, forcing recruiters to up their game to make their numbers by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Trump’s budget would add 4,000 more airmen for a total of 325,100, 1,400 sailors for a total of 327,900 and 574 Marines for a total of 185,000.
The Army wouldn’t grow under Trump’s proposal for 2018, but Obama mandated 6,000 more recruits beyond the 62,500 originally planned for this year.
Legally, military recruiters have to be given the same access to high school campuses as potential employers and colleges. They are especially welcome at some schools, including Lake Minneola High, which had a military signing ceremony in April to honor students who enlisted in the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard.
“I’ve always wanted to join the military,” said Austin Coleman, 17, of Clermont, who signed up for the Navy and intends to become an air crewman. “I’m excited to go to boot camp and finally start my life.”
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