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With more and more young people choosing their challenges in college and their rewards in civilian jobs, a serious shortage of military recruits is forcing the Pentagon to revamp its strategy for filling its ranks.

And some of the Pentagon's own consultants say the armed forces have not yet faced up to the severity of the recruiting gap and need to do still more.

When the fiscal year ends on Thursday, the Army will fall short of its recruiting goal for the second year in a row, signing up nearly 7,000 fewer enlistees than the 74,500 it needs to maintain its force at current levels. It is the worst shortfall since 1979, when the Army was recruiting twice as many recruits as it does now.

The Air Force, too, is expected to miss its target of 33,800 by 1,500 to 1,800 people, despite having paid for commercial television advertising this past year for the first time.

The Navy, which fell 12,000 recruits short last year, may just squeak by, but only after lowering its goal from last year and accepting thousands more recruits who never made it through high school, but earned only general equivalency diplomas.

Only the Marine Corps, the smallest force and the one with arguably the strongest traditional appeal to prospective recruits, has kept pace.

The recruiting shortfall has prompted growing concern at the Pentagon, where officials are scrambling to reverse the trend. They stop short, though, of calling it a crisis.

The Army, like all the services, has increased its advertising and raised its signing bonuses: recruits can get $6,000 just for signing up before Thursday, on top of other bonuses. It has also increased the money it offers recruits for college tuition, now as much as $50,000, up from $40,000.

And in a striking break with tradition, the Army has sent hundreds of fresh young soldiers on recruiting assignments back to their hometowns in the hope they can persuade others like themselves to join.

Pvt. Dennis L. Neal, who recently undertook such a mission in a tough neighborhood in the nation's capital, where he used to live, has barely been in the Army long enough to know if he likes it. His entire military experience so far has been a couple of months of basic training and truck-driving school. Now the Army has turned to him to do what veteran sergeants are hard pressed to accomplish these days: find new recruits.

''What I tell them,'' Private Neal, who is 21, said the other day, as he stood with colleagues from one of Washington's two recruiting stations at a street music festival only a few blocks from where he grew up, ''is that it ain't so bad.''

Raising an all-volunteer military has never been easy, but the difficulties with recruiting have been mounting in recent years as the economy courses along and college becomes an attainable goal for more young people than ever. Even as Congress and the Pentagon pour millions of dollars more into advertising and marketing, many officials fear that the problem may only get worse.

In a report last week, a Federal advisory commission studying national security in the 21st century included recruiting shortfalls as one of the threats the American military is expected to face. The commission, headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren B. Rudman, cited surveys showing a sharp drop in young men, especially young black men, who even consider joining.

''It is not clear how the military establishment, then, will sustain the volunteer force over the next generation and, particularly, how it will manage to recruit and retain enough highly skilled personnel to meet the increasing technical needs of an advanced military,'' the commission said.

Next month the Army plans to inaugurate a pilot program to pay 6,000 high school dropouts to study for G.E.D.'s so they can qualify to join the active force or the reserves. Another program will let prospective recruits sign up, but put off basic training for up to two years to finish college, to tap the growing number of young men and women who go straight to college after high school.

''There are so many unexploited opportunities that we haven't taken advantage of to improve recruiting,'' the Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, said in an interview.

And yet even Mr. Caldera warned that the Army needed to reverse the waning interest in military service among the first generation of young people whose fathers came of age after the draft ended in 1973.

''If unabated,'' he said, ''it might not make a difference what kinds of resources you're plowing into recruiting.''

Officials at the Pentagon attribute poor recruiting to a variety of forces that have collided at once.

The pool of young men and women between the ages of 18 and 22 -- the optimum age for recruits -- has shrunk to roughly 21 million, 5 million fewer than in 1980. Making matters more difficult for the military, the nation's economic boom has created the lowest unemployment rate in years, creating abundant job opportunities for those who might otherwise be interested in enlisting

''We are in a very tough environment right now,'' Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate's Armed Services Committee this month.

But there is evidence that the problems may lie with the Pentagon as much as with economic and demographic trends.

Over the summer, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen hired two prominent Washington political consultants -- Carter D. Eskew, a Democrat, and Michael R. Murphy, a Republican -- to review the Pentagon's recruiting strategy and the $300 million its spends on advertisements. Their preliminary findings, presented to Mr. Cohen and other senior officials last month, were sharply critical of the services' recruiting effort.

The Army, Navy and Air Force have failed to articulate a clear image and purpose to prospective recruits, they told the officials. Only the Marine Corps has a distinct image to sell, they said.

''The other services need to find themselves, post cold war,'' Rudy de Leon, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, said.

The consultants also recommended that the services conduct more thorough research into the attitudes and habits of the young, and rely less on traditional approaches to television advertising like buying time during basketball or football games that reach only a certain segment of young people.

They also said the Pentagon increasingly needed to focus its pitch on ''influencers'' -- parents, teachers and coaches, many of whom appear to be discouraging young people from considering the military because either they never served or they have lingering hostility from the Vietnam era.

The Army has already taken the consultants' critiques to heart. One of the first casualties may be the jingle that the Army has used for the better part of two decades -- ''Be All That You Can Be'' -- even though Advertising Age magazine recently ranked it as one of the most memorable of the century.

''There's a lot of value in that, because it's very recognizable,'' Mr. Caldera said. ''But the question we have to ask is, Is it the right message for the young people you are trying to attract?''

Others have said more drastic measures are needed.

Charles C. Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who served on the national security advisory panel, has been calling on the services to offer shorter enlistments, of 15 or 18 months, something the Pentagon says wastes money spent on training. Mr. Moskos, though, argues that shorter stints could be tailored to college students interested in serving on missions like those in Bosnia or Kosovo that are straining the Army's resources.

''Call it junior year abroad,'' he said.

But Representative Steve Buyer, the Indiana Republican who heads the House's subcommittee on military personnel, said the problem was the missions themselves, a complaint echoed by the leading Republican Presidential candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, in a speech last week.

''We're fooling ourselves if we believe we can solve the problem with more G.E.D. programs or more money for ads,'' Mr. Buyer said. ''What we need is a change in foreign policy.''

In the meantime, the burden has fallen on the Army's recruiters, who put in long days trolling for recruits in an ever-dwindling pool of prospects. Each month the recruiting station in Washington on Florida Avenue is supposed to enlist 12 or 13 recruits. On average, the station's 10 recruiters have been getting 6 to 8.

First Sgt. Beth Ann Lockett, a 12-year veteran, said the hardest part was finding people who even qualify, let alone show interest. She has to turn away single mothers, people who score too low on the military's aptitude test and those who have used drugs recently -- not uncommon traits among young people, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Those convicted of serious crimes are also disqualified, though she hastened to add, ''We can work with legal problems.''

Most of the recruiters' time is spent on the phone chasing down leads, or setting up shop in places where young people gather, as Sergeant Lockett and her crew of soldiers, including Private Neal, did the other evening at a radio station's street festival in Potomac Gardens, a gritty housing project in Southeast Washington.

As hip-hop music blared, though, the recruiters had little to do. Almost no one over the age of 10 paid much attention to the brochures neatly stacked on two rickety folding tables. Finally, after more than an hour, the first prospect appeared: Damall Kellem, a 17-year-old senior in the Class of 2000.

Mr. Kellem took a brochure but said that most young people did not give military service much consideration.

''It's not even in their vocabularies,'' he said with a shrug and walked off.



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