Conway: Minority accession decline troubling
By Gidget Fuentes - Staff writer
Posted : Sunday Jul 22, 2007 9:25:39 EDT

CORONADO, Calif. — The Marine Corps has made significant strides in attracting and retaining more minorities in uniform, but troubling signs loom on the horizon, Commandant Gen. James Conway told an officers’ association meeting.

Minority enlisted accessions have slid over time. While 27 percent of Marines enlisting in 1979 were minorities, the number of minority enlistments had dropped by last year to about 7 percent, said Conway, speaking to a luncheon crowd July 19 at the annual National Naval Officers Association conference.

“Not a good news story. Not a pretty picture,” he conceded.

The number of minority officers joining the Corps during that period hit a high in 1998 but has also dropped, although not as dramatically.

With the Corps set to grow to 202,000 Marines by 2011, the trend is worrisome. “I’m showing the Marine figures, but I suspect that’s what all the services face at this point,” he told the audience.

Conway said he and other officials are looking closely at a new study by the Center for Naval Analyses that might help them find some near-term and long-term solutions.

The study shows a mixed bag of good and bad news, he told the audience. One set of good news is in a snapshot of the percentage of minorities who are deciding to stay in the Corps.

Among enlisted Marines, the number of minorities at the higher staff noncommissioned officer ranks has jumped dramatically, with more minority Marines re-enlisting into the career force. Among first-termers, 40.4 percent of blacks are re-enlisting, a higher rate than whites, who re-enlisted at a rate of 23.8 percent. Second-term re-enlistments saw similar hikes among minorities, he said, although racial and ethnic differences level out after the third re-enlistment.

“It is dramatically larger, I think, in the earlier opportunities for re-enlistment,” he said.

The playing field today for black sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants has improved since they enlisted, statistics show. When they joined in the late 1970s and early 1980s, only 20 percent of E-9s were blacks, but blacks represent about 32 percent of that top rank today. Overall, minorities represent 45 percent of all sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants, much higher than the Corps’ overall minority rate of 33.5 percent, Conway said.

Still, the number of black Marines is slightly down, and below the national average, a noticeable drop since “historically we have been a little bit above” the national population breakdown, Conway said. “That’s troubling to us, because we want to look like America. We are America’s Marine Corps, and we need to look like the rest of the country.”

Conway said he hopes to see better results in recruiting as well as retention. “Everyone that goes out the door, we’ve got to recruit,” he said. His message to recruiters: “Tighten up.”

Today, minorities represent 17 percent of the Corps’ officers, a jump from 1988, when minorities represented about 8 percent of officers. The general officer corps includes 10 minorities. “We’re pretty proud of that. Not saying we can’t do better,” Conway said, “but it takes a long time to grow a colonel or a general.”

The study found a noticeable dip in minority officers around the 20-year mark, leaving officials wondering why more minority officers opt to retire at that point than white officers do.

The mixed news comes more than a decade since the Corps took steps to recruit and retain more minorities, especially blacks. But today, the military services are struggling to recruit minorities as fewer youths of all racial and ethnic groups are thinking of joining the military, influenced by ongoing combat deployments and less support from families, teachers and other “influencers.”

“We know what that’s all about,” Conway said, noting that recruiters must spend much more time talking and convincing the influencers than ever before. “It’s a tougher job out there, and yet we’re trying to grow the force, we’re trying to maintain the force that we’ve got and we’re certainly trying to keep our minority numbers tall.”

Conway said he became especially concerned when he learned that only 2 percent of the Corps’ aviators are minorities. “I was surprised by that. I just thought it was more,” he said after the luncheon. He also saw a jump of about 150 among the minority sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants just in the last two years, and he’s asked CNA to find out why.

One of his larger concerns, though, is the number of minorities — officer and enlisted — in combat arms skills. The large war-fighting community, which includes infantry, armor, artillery and aviation, remains predominantly white, with fewer minorities than officials would have hoped to see. Intelligence and engineer fields are among those that show comparable numbers of whites and minorities, but several communities, mainly administration and supply, have the largest concentration of minorities.

Conway said he wants to “make the case” and find ways to increase that minority representation and ensure that those officers and enlisted Marines have equal opportunities for promotions and career opportunities.

“Black ... officers are underrepresented by combat arms,” which is a concern when taken together with the fact that 83 percent of general officers are in combat arms, he said.

“What we are starting to see in the Marine Corps [is] minorities competing against minorities in certain fields and not potentially able to go all the way to the fence when we’ve got such a high percentage who are combat arms,” he said.

He used this example: Of the 10 generals who traveled with him on his trip to California, seven of the nine male generals were in combat arms. “If we don’t continue to grow [them] and put them in the right MOSs, I am just concerned that we won’t continue to see the progress that we have seen to date,” he added.

Conway asked NNOA members to help mentor prospective officers and young Marines. “Go combat arms early,” he implored them. “You can always get out of the combat arms field because they’re overpopulated.”