A new report by the Government Accountability Office says the Pentagon must do a better job finding and retaining recruits for specialties that are chronically understaffed, especially with ongoing challenges in meeting recruiting goals.

In its report, the GAO noted five of the Defense Department’s 10 components – the Army, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and Navy Reserve – missed their recruiting goals by a range of 8 to 20 percent in fiscal year 2005, with the Navy experiencing “aggregate shortages by up to 8 percent” by itself.

The government watchdog agency also found that the Pentagon was continuing to pay thousands of dollars in recruitment bonuses for specialties which were overstaffed, recommending the money be spent on filling posts where shortfalls exist.

“Because enlistment and selective reenlistment bonuses generally range from a few thousand dollars up to $60,000, providing these bonuses to servicemembers in overfilled occupational specialties can be quite costly,” the report said.

In addition, the GAO noted a Pentagon find that could foreshadow successive years of poor recruitment: “DOD reports that over half of today’s youth cannot meet the military’s entry standards for education, aptitude, health, moral character, or other requirements, making recruiting a significant challenge,” said the report.

In all, “19 percent of DOD’s 1,484 occupational specialties were consistently overfilled and 41 percent were consistently underfilled from [fiscal years] 2000-2005,” it said. Though service branch “components offered reasons why occupational specialties may be over- or underfilled, GAO believes that consistently over- and underfilled occupational specialties are a systemic problem for DOD that raises two critical questions. First, what is the cost to the taxpayer to retain thousands more personnel than necessary in consistently overfilled occupational specialties? Second, how can DOD components continue to effectively execute their mission with consistently underfilled occupational specialties?”

The watchdog agency found that last fiscal year alone, there were nearly 31,000 more personnel in overfilled specialties than authorized, while simultaneously the Pentagon “was not able to fill over 112,000 positions in consistently underfilled occupational specialties.”

The GAO’s report comes on the heels of a tough recruiting year for the military. The Army and National Guard, for example, fell 7,000 and 13,000 soldiers respectively short of recruiting goals last year, though the Army met or exceeded its recruitment goals in the final five months of fiscal year 2005.

The Navy Reserve and Air National Guard each did not meet their recruitment goals in October – the first month of the new fiscal year, while the Army exceeded its goal.

Part of the reason the Army may be doing better is because of its decision to accept more recruits who scored on the lowest third of their entrance aptitude tests. The Baltimore Sun reported that figure tripled last month to 12 percent of the 4,925 recruits accepted – three times the Pentagon’s mandated ceiling of 4 percent.

The Sun reported the lowest-ranking recruits scored between 16 and 30 points out of a possible 99 points “on an aptitude test that quizzes potential soldiers on general science, mathematics and word knowledge.”

Of the Army’s decision to lower its standards, “I think it’s disastrous,” said former Army Secretary Thomas White.

“You are throwing the towel in on recruiting quality,” he told the Sun.

White was fired by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 over policy differences.

The Army and Air Force have had trouble signing up enough medical personnel – doctors, nurses, dentists, medics and other health care personnel – to fill the service’s needs.

”One area of concern is a shortage of cardiologists and some surgical specialties,” Army spokesman Paul Boyce told the Boston Globe.

And the Air Force Medical Service ”continues to face significant challenges in the recruitment and retention of physicians, dentists, and nurses; the people whom we depend on to provide care for our beneficiaries,” Lt. Gen. George Peach Taylor, the Air Force surgeon general, told the House Armed Service’s Committee’s personnel panel recently.

The Navy also has had trouble finding enough hospital corpsman – the sea service’s equivalent of a medic – in recent years. The Navy also provides medical services for the Marine Corps.

According to the GAO report, other military specialties needing personnel include aviation maintenance and repair; special operations personnel; divers; fire control technicians; electronics technicians; and engineers.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.