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The U.S. Army Has a Recruitment Problem. Here’s How to Solve It

11 minute read
Col. Scott-Skillern, U.S. Army, is the Chief of Staff of the Army Senior Fellow at New America. Singer is Senior Fellow at New America

The difficulty of recruiting the U.S. Army’s next generation has become not only one of the biggest challenges for the future of the force, but also perhaps its biggest political football.

When Army leaders projected late last year that active Army troop strength for 2023 would have a shortfall of almost 20,000 from the projected 485,000, it quickly led to action inside the force and heated debate outside. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Chief of Staff General James McConville announced they would shift up to $1.2 billion from Army programs to recruiting initiatives, enlistment and reenlistment bonuses, and other efforts. In turn, worries about what the personnel shortfall meant and its connection to some of the most hot-button political issues became a talking point everywhere from cable news shows to congressional hearings.

Yet, the reality of the issue is not what much of the controversy has made it seem. The actual causes of the recruiting problems, and thus measures we should take in answer to them, don’t match where so much of the attention is being paid.

Despite receiving so much attention in the media and our politics, Army leaders note that there is literally no “hard data” indicating that the cause of the shortfall is a COVID-19 vaccine mandate (which has been rescinded anyway). The numbers of its effect on retention don’t add up either. According to Defense Department records, 1,816 soldiers have been discharged for refusing to receive vaccinations, which is a relatively small proportion of the service and the gap. U.S. defense officials believe that the resistance of the vaccination results from misinformation about the safety of the vaccination

Similarly, the data doesn’t support the idea that “woke-ism” and a focus on social justice is behind the recruiting gap. As the commanding general of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, Major General Johnny Davis, told Defense One, “While there are many things that prevent young Americans from enlisting in the military, including a lack of awareness about military life in general, ‘woke-ism’ is not one of them.” This finding has been backed by the latest Army surveys, which queried some 2,400 youth between the ages of 18 to 25 on their attitudes toward the service.

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Experts who study the issue agree. As Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, told a recent conference on the topic, there is plenty of data showing why young people don’t join the military, but “wokeness is not on the list.” Indeed, by the raw numbers, there have been over four times more articles, op-eds, cable news interviews, think-tank reports, and angry web posts on the issue of wokeness deterring service (87,000 at last count) than the actual number of recruits in the gap.

It is also valuable to understand the historic and current context around the Army’s recruiting gap. For instance, shortfalls are not new to the force. As it enters the 50th year of the all-volunteer force, the Army has experienced multiple periods of recruiting highs and lows, from the surges in the wake of 9/11 patriotism to similar difficulties in recruiting following the Vietnam War and during the Iraq War. It has also regularly been lifted or buffeted by the surrounding economy, with today’s low unemployment rate being good for job prospects, but tougher for military recruiting.

Nor is the current recruiting challenge unique to the U.S. Canada’s armed forces presently have such a far more severe shortage, such that about 1 in 10 of its military’s 100,000 positions are unfilled. In turn, even the U.S.’s new strategic competitors face recruiting challenges. Russia’s army has had to turn to conscription and the use of prisoners to fill out its ranks during the Ukraine war, while the People’s Liberation Army is scrambling to fill gaps in well-educated young troops, leading China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to call for a greater “sense of urgency” on military-personnel modernization at both the 19th and 20th Party Congresses.

Finally, it is notable that, despite the fact that they all operate under the very same supposed problems of vaccine mandates and wokeism, the recruiting issues differ across the U.S. military services. In fact, General John “Jay” Raymond, the new Space Force’s first chief of staff, recently told an event that his service has the opposite problem as the Army. “We have more people knocking on our door than we can take,” Raymond said.

So what is actually happening, and what can be done to have a real effect? The short answer is that the Army faces a combination of challenges beyond its control that link to problems of its own making. Fortunately, each has a ready set of responses in three areas.

First is to widen a shrinking pool. Put directly, less young Americans are eligible to serve than in the past, due to changing demographics, education performance, and especially health (weight, behavioral health, and other medical conditions). Only 23% of American youth fully meet the Army’s eligibility requirements, compared to 29% in the previous years.

Obviously, long-term efforts to aid such social problems would be helpful, yet the Pentagon has multiple ways to face this better in the here and now. The first is that the requirements are not uniform across the U.S. military; the Army and its peers are drawing from the same pool, but with different standards. According to our discussions with Lieut. Colonel Felichia Brooks, a Battalion Commander with the Baltimore Recruiting Command, the organization has lost multiple applicants to other services because of these differences. Fixing these enlistment eligibility disparities should be on the action list.

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The second is to recognize that no matter how standards are applied, the problem of societal demographic and health aren’t going away. As such, more is required to aid would-be recruits to meet these standards. For example, a pilot program called the Future Soldier Preparatory Course has met with great success at Fort Jackson in South Carolina to help overcome obstacles to military duty related to academic performance and physical health barriers. Such programs could be scaled more widely.

It would also be valuable to widen the pool by updating outdated policies that are presently excluding potential recruits. Here there are also two ready responses. Regulation (AR) 600-85 of the Army Marijuana and the Army’s Substance Abuse Program penalizes would-be recruits for using a substance now accepted in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia. It could be modified to reflect that if marijuana use is permissible in the state where the applicant enlists, then the Army must consider the laws of that state. It is upon enlistment, not before, that recruits should be limited to Army’s Drug and Alcohol policies.

Finally, the Army must change to reflect the new American family. There are over 11 million single parent households in the U.S. now, of whom a quarter face joblessness or economic challenges. And yet, under current Army policy, single parents must give up guardianship of their children for their initial enlistment. The resulting duration could be anywhere between two years to a lengthy six years, which creates an obvious barrier to entry for single parents. Yet, the Army has successfully navigated having single parents inside the force for decades. At last count, in 2021, there were 119,186 single parents successfully serving in the U.S. military, nearly half of them in the Army. The force should therefore explore adjusting its current policy to allow recruits to regain custody of their children within an earlier stage of their service, such as 12 to 18 months on active duty.

The second area of shift needed is to reform the Army’s own systems and bureaucracy, to reduce anything hampering the recruiting process. Too many barriers are thrown up for those showing interest in the force, something all the worse among a generation that experiences quick responses in so many other parts of their lives. For instance, the Army recently put into place a program called GENESIS, an automated and integrated medical information system that aids in managing and providing health care. Although it has the laudable goal of performing a more thorough medical screening of applicants and boosting medical screening efficiency, it has caused significant processing delays for applicants. These can extend sometimes as long as a year, according to Brooks, resulting in many applicants choosing an alternative military service than the Army or even a civilian job that offers a much quicker on-ramp.

A recruit for the Army shouldn’t be lost because of protracted red tape and a burdensome documentation process. To decrease medical delays, the Army must consider authorizing the United States Military Entrance Processing Command permission to hire more medical personnel to review and handle medical waivers to reduce delays.

The final track is to build up the awareness and attraction of the Army. As Major General Alex Fink, chief of the Army’s Enterprise Marketing team, noted after the survey results came out, the issue for today’s youth wasn’t vaccines or wokeness, but they “just don’t see the Army as something that’s relevant.”

In this public outreach effort, though, Army recruitment has been behind the eightball in its branding. When it first shifted from a draft to a professional force, the Army messaged “Be All You Can Be.” It was considered one of the best slogans in not just the history of military recruiting, but all of advertising.

In 2001, though, the Army jettisoned the tried and true and spent the next two decades cycling through new mottos and campaigns, from “Army Strong” and “Army of One” to the present “What’s Your Warrior?” The current campaign was actually adapted in 2018 in a deliberate attempt by Army leaders to find a new slogan they hoped would be “as powerful as Be All You Can Be.”

Unfortunately, the video-game-derived question has failed to resonate both with youth it targeted and the equally important set of parents, coaches, and teachers who advise them.

As a result, this year, the Army will debut a new marketing initiative. It turns out the best course of action was to return to the slogan “Be All You Can Be.” The force is going back to the slogan because it better “conveys the possibilities that await a new Army recruit,” as Fink explains.

A better message, though, will only go so far. Less than 1% of the population is a military member; hence, most Americans do not have personal connections to understand Army life and its opportunities (which the survey data shows is more of a barrier). Thus, the Army must step up its community outreach activities at every command. As Wormuth and McConville put it, “We are in a war for talent, and it will take all of our people — troops from all components, families, Army civilians, and soldiers for life — to fight and win this war.”

This recruiting “war” will only be won if actual organizational incentives and leader evaluations are changed to reflect the force’s needs. We must turn outreach into a real whole-of-force effort, with the inducements to match. An example start is a pilot program that mirrors how civilian industry recruits; successful companies don’t just rely on their HR department in a job search, but also enlist their own employees’ peer networks. The new Army pilot similarly rewards enlisted soldiers who personally aid recruiting, by providing them with a promotion if their referral draws another soldier into the force.

For all the controversy that surrounds the Army’s recruiting shortfall, its answers lie in reflecting the world we live in. The successful force of tomorrow will be built not from the angry debate but from sound policy. And that may be the best outcome of all.

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