Outlook 2012: National Guard becoming selective with its recruits
CAPITAL REGION There's still just as many National Guard jobs available each year as there used to be, but -- like nearly everything else -- they've become more competitive.
Standards are higher now. Among the biggest changes: almost every National Guard member must have a high school diploma.
"That doesn't mean everybody we bring in was an Eagle Scout and runs a 4-minute mile and has a 4.0," recruiter Lt. Col. Steven Rowe said. "But 90 percent have a high school degree."
Each year, the Guard hires 2,000 New Yorkers for a six-year enlistment. For part-time work, the benefits are good: soldiers can pay into the system to get health insurance, are eligible for a pension if they stay for 20 years and the lowest-ranked soldier gets more than $3,000 a year for spending two weeks in training plus one weekend a month on duty.
They also get $8,000 a year in student loan assistance, $6,000 for tuition assistance and a $5,000 bonus for taking some specialized jobs.
Despite the varying levels of danger and unpopularity of the last decade of combat, enough people want to join the Guard that it can afford to be choosy. "It's definitely harder now," Rowe said. "The entry standards have increased."
Among the biggest problems many young people have with joining: they're too fat. The Guard has a fat-percentage limit, as well as fitness requirements.
"You must have the ability to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle," Rowe said. "You have to meet medical and moral requirements."
What are medical requirements? Being allergic to peanuts isn't a problem, he said.
"But you can't be on dialysis," he added.
Any medical problems between allergies and imminent death are up for debate: the Guard doctors will decide.
But that's if the applicant gets that far. "Moral" requirements are another roadblock.
The Guard will take candidates who have been convicted of possessing marijuana -- though not other drugs.
But if the candidate has ever been convicted of selling or even simply distributing marijuana, they are automatically rejected.
And the Guard is serious about drugs. Applicants are drug tested, and all Guard members are tested at random throughout their entire enlistment.
Applicants who have been convicted of a felony are also automatically rejected.
"No exceptions. No entry for anyone who had any kind of felony," Rowe said.
Recruiters still stress that joining the Guard is a part-time commitment, allowing soldiers to go to college or work in the civilian world. But many soldiers have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was a shock at first to some soldiers, but by now, new recruits understand that they may be signing up for much more than a part-time job, Rowe said.
"Since 2001, everyone's had the perspective. They know what they're getting into," he said. "It's not like 20 years ago, when the National Guardsman might never leave his hometown."
Although the war in Iraq is over, Guard units are still in Afghanistan and could be sent to other war zones in the future. In a decade of combat, a number of Capital Region Guardsmen have been wounded or killed.
But that hasn't discouraged recruits from joining up. Rowe said many of them turn to the Guard to help them get a better civilian job.
"Obviously, in this competitive job market, this boost to the resume is not only welcome but needed," he said. "The military sends us to the best of schools for the training."
One of the Guard's biggest programs in New York is communications: networking computer systems, learning to use microwave satellite communication systems and other high-tech jobs.
But don't imagine that these jobs are exactly like their civilian world counterparts.
In the Guard, a communications expert might be a fire support specialist, whose job is to serve as the eyes of an artillery unit at war. The specialist uses satellites, drones and other equipment to find the target and direct the artillery.
A job with a more obvious link to the civilian world is the military police position. There are more MPs in the Guard than any other job, Rowe said.
The job "translates directly" to civilian law enforcement positions, according to the National Guard.
On base, MPs run crime-prevention programs, enforce laws and work as security guards. At war, they're the ones guarding POWs.
And then there are jobs that few people have heard of, even though they exist in both the Guard and the civilian world.
Among those are chemical equipment repairers, who maintain machines that decontaminate gear. If that sounds easy, it's not: they have to learn to run a complex set of machines, including multiple pumps, engines and filters.
While the jobs are plentiful, the locations are limited. Most soldiers will have to relocate to take the job they want. The only open chemical equipment repairer positions, for example, are in Rochester, Buffalo, Kingston, Binghamton and Fort Drum.
Still, recruiters argue that it's worth it. Military experience, they say, will pay off.
"As opposed to maybe working at Price Chopper," Rowe said.
And, he added, in only one branch of the military do soldiers get to swoop in and save their own hometown.
"When Hurricane Irene hit here, it wasn't the 10th Mountain Division that came in. It was the local National Guard units."