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Army goes on a careers offensive

A startling 43 per cent of last year's recruits to the British Army were from broken homes, according to a recent survey.

The army is proving less attractive to people from a more secure family background and the fact that it offers stability and discipline may explain its appeal to those from troubled homes. The difficulty for those in charge of recruitment is to persuade others that it represents a worthwhile career.

With a recruit being paid Pounds 167 a week on completing basic training and the offer of a guaranteed three years in the job, senior officers believe the army should be an attractive option for today's teenagers. But it isn't.

Last year, there were 15,000 vacancies, but only 11,000 were filled. The previous year's picture was similar. Thanks to a number of initiatives, there are hopes that this year will see an improvement.

An army spokesman said the high number of recruits from broken homes probably reflected society today with its increasing divorce rate. It was impossible to correlate academic standards with recruits from broken homes but he said such a high number of recruits from such backgrounds did not present problems for the army.

He added: "The army has always been somewhere for such young people to aim for and somewhere to go when they don't have security in their lives. The army can provide a good deal of stability they may not have had in their home life. It doesn't give us any problem at all."

The army is struggling to find recruits partly because "peace dividend" cutbacks sent a false message that jobs would dry up. Added to that is the "couch potato" syndrome, with today's teenagers not being as fit as their predecessors; the rising number of young people with a criminal record, which bars them from the forces; and the escalating use of drugs, which also rules out potential recruits.

The survey, commissioned by the army, also showed that a large percentage of parents said they would discourage their children from a military career. Today's slimmed-down army means there are fewer people with a forces family connection that might help to overcome such prejudices.

Army statistics show that, out of the 6.9 million young people who are eligible to join, only 105,000 are in any way interested. It is at those that the Pounds 10.7 million budget for publicity is directed.

Colonel Simon Young, of the directorate for army recruiting, said: "We have begun a major advertising and marketing campaign to redress that false perception that we are not recruiting."

It will be more difficult for the army to overcome what Colonel Young described as "young people's lack of enthusiasm for public service". Where once the idea of joining for travel and excitement would have been attractive, many teenagers are more concerned with qualifications. The idea of slogging it out in the infantry for a few years doesn't appeal.

To combat this, the army is restructuring its own service exams so that, as well as advancing within the army, the successful soldier will receive appropriate national vocational qualifications.

Geographically, the North-west and the Midlands continue to be the main sources of would-be soldiers. Though London and the South-east has the largest population, it isn't a big recruiting area. Colonel Young said: "In the South-east, employment prospects are better and people's aspirations are higher."

As regards fitness, he believes schools must take their share of the blame. "The lifestyle of young people has changed a hell of a lot and we have to accept that," he said. "We have started a pilot scheme at one of our recruit selection centres where borderline cases who failed the basic fitness test are given an intensive three-week physical development course."

Other initiatives include a bounty scheme whereby a serving soldier receives Pounds 250 for recruiting a friend, and a "satisfied soldier" scheme for those who have recently completed training to return on placement to their local army careers office.

Agreements have also been signed with the Careers Service and the Employment Service Agency to ensure they stock army material and will direct interested young people to the army careers office.

"All of us in recruitment are now better focused and have a better understanding of what the market is about," said Colonel Young. "We know how important it is for the army to recruit young men and women of the right quality."

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