Serving Their Country Military Recruiters Compete With Civilian Medical Facilities To Attract Professionals

A group of New England nursing students recently took a field trip — courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force’s 319th Recruiting Squadron, based in Portsmouth, N.H., gathered 40 seniors from nursing schools across the region and flew them to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where they heard about career opportunities in the military and observed firsthand the life of an enlisted nurse.
“Our needs are the same as everyone else’s,” said Maj. Ralph Ruocco, flight commander for officer ascessions for the 319th. “One of the critical needs for this year are nurses and nurse specialists.”

By allowing nursing students to tour the base and speak with the head nurse, Ruocco and fellow recruiters hoped they could make an impression as the students begin to make career commitments. At a time when all sorts of medical facilities, from hospitals to nursing homes, are competing feverishly for a relatively small nursing pool, any positive impression goes a long way, he said.

When Uncle Sam says he wants you, as the old poster reads, he’s not only looking for fighting men and women. Medical personnel are in short supply in the Armed Forces, particularly when it comes to nurses, general physicians, and even dentists.

And with competition fierce over a limited pool of job seekers, military recruiters have to be both aggressive and creative to win commitments.

On the Table

That’s where financial incentives come into play — similar to the way hospitals offer to reimburse student loans for incoming nurses, and the way the military does the same for other enlistees.

“When we recruit medical students, we have scholarships available to pay for three or four years of school,” Ruocco said. For dental, we pay two- and three-year scholarships.”

Still, he said, the regional office fell somewhat short of its goals last year, particularly in the area of nursing, where candidates are being wooed with lucrative incentives from all types of facilities. “So we’re really putting our efforts into nursing schools,” he said.

“A lot of nurses come in and want to be flight nurses, transporting patients from one locale to another,” Ruocco added, positioning the military as a good option for someone who can pick up roots quickly. “A lot of them are single, or they just want a change. Some of them welcome the idea of going to California or Hawaii or overseas.”

And that poses a challenge of sorts when recruiting nurses who do have roots in one area. Anne Glanovsky, director of Nursing at American International College in Springfield, said she has had just two graduates choose the military in the past 12 years, but they were less-traditional students who had a little more freedom and enjoyed the opportunities that the Armed Forces presented.

“The characters of our student body is such that many of them have families, children, and significant others,” Glan-ovsky said. “And many are now operating as technical associates and nursing assistants at local institutions, and their goal, in a great many cases, is to stay there in a different role once they graduate.”

New graduates who choose to enlist in the military instead of working at, say, a hospital are put through a 12-week transition program to gain specific experience, while at the same time, the military also seeks out nurses with many years of experience.

“A lot of it is based on referrals,” said Master Sgt. Bill Keene, a recruiter for the 104th Fighter Wing based at Barnes Airport in Westfield. “We rely on professionals to refer people they work with. Here, they’re doing the same things they’re doing in the civilian world, but they’re actually serving their country.”

Patriotism is a factor for many medical enlistees, Keene said, but recruiting in this area has not benefited much from America’s recent conflicts overseas. “After 9/11, there was an increase in calls — mostly retired people we could not bring back into duty — but we didn’t see a sharp increase in enlistments,” he said. “We’ve maintained the status quo.”

For experienced nurses, perhaps a more important factor than patriotism, Ruocco said, is the potential for career advancement.

“They like the opportunities as far as promotion and pay go,” he said. “A lot of nurses tell us they started right out of nursing school working swing shifts in the hospital, and they don’t see any career progression because it’s so top-heavy there that they have to wait until someone retires or leaves the hospital to get promoted.

“In the Air Force,” he explained, “they get promoted on a regular basis, and with each promotion comes more responsibility and leadership that they don’t get on the civilian side.”

Focused on Medicine

Many of the dentists and general physicians now being recruited have motivations that go beyond the actual work, Ruocco added.

“Some of the dentists are getting fed up with private practice,” he said. “They’re tired of paying the overhead, tired of malpractice — they just want to come in and practice their specialty. As for physicians, a lot of them are older, in their 50s, and they want to change because they’re fed up with the HMO system and the way private-practice medicine has changed over the years.”

The older physicians who want a change of career, Keene said, often seek to escape these kinds of administrative hassles, as well as gain a sense of performing a duty larger than themselves.

“A lot of times, medical professionals do not join for the money. They take a more indepth look at patriotism and service to country,” he said. “Quite frankly, a lot of these people don’t need the money.”

That doesn’t stop recruiters from aggressively seeking medical students, as money is a key factor with young physicians, moreso than with nurses, because of the cost of their education. “We go after these people just out of medical school and ask how we can help them pay for some of their school bills.”

That might include a $50,000 loan repayment program or a $30,000 cash incentive bonus — whereas a traditional soldier might receive $20,000 in loan repayments, reflecting the higher cost of medical school.

With that contract, of course, comes the uncertainty of military life. “Right now, they’re assigned here to Westfield,” Keene said. “But if the government or the president needed their specialty in a foreign location, they could be deployed.”

And the needs of various service branches change over time, as well, Ruocco said. For instance, pharmacists were in great need just a couple of years ago, where now anesthesiologists top the list of specialty positions that must be filled.

“We’re always short of medical doctors. We can never have enough of them,” Keene added. And the reasons doctors choose the military are just as varied as the need is constant.

“A lot of these professionals have already established themselves, and they’re doing it for more than monetary reasons,” he reiterated.

“With the younger graduates who are loaded with loans, we provide a way to at least alleviate some of that burden. But for many older physicians, I think it’s service to country.”

In that the military continues to meet its medical needs by offering recruits something in return — from financial incentives to job satisfaction — it’s not much different than the private health industry, where the pool of candidates is still, in many cases, not deep enough.