Opinion / Forces, Reform

Bad Idea: Relying on the Same Old Solutions to Meet the Military Recruitment Challenge

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

The U.S. military is facing the worst recruiting crisis since the creation of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) nearly fifty years ago in July 1973. In FY 2022, the Army missed its recruiting goals by nearly 20 thousand soldiers—nearly 25 percent of the service’s recruiting goal. While the other services were able to meet their FY 2022 recruiting targets, they did so by drawing on delayed entry recruits—those recruits with signed contracts who were not expected to enter service until FY 2023—indicating that the challenges experienced in FY 2022 may only increase in the coming year. Early indications are that FY 2023 is as bad or worse.

All the signs were there, but the warnings seemingly went unheeded.  In 2018, the Army missed its recruiting goal and in subsequent years increasingly relied on increased retention numbers to meet their total end strength requirements. Other services encountered increasing challenges too in meeting their missions.

As the services now face an unprecedented recruitment crisis, there’s a temptation to rely on traditional, seemingly time-tested solutions to help the services meet recruitment targets: increased enlistment bonuses, reduced requirements (for high school diplomas, test scores, or moral waivers), a higher number of recruiters, and adjustments to marketing campaigns intended to expand the appeal of military service. However, as demonstrated by the growing recruitment problem encountered over the last few years, relying on such traditional approaches is an insufficient and ineffective means of addressing the current challenge.

Marshall Goldsmith titled his 2008 self-help book What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. That thought accurately captures the challenge now facing the U.S. armed forces.

Reliance on these traditional approaches is understandable, as they have served as effective solutions in past difficult recruiting environments. Enlistment bonuses accounted for nearly 20 percent of high-quality enlistments between FY 2004 and 2008. Moral waivers (for felonies, traffic violations, and drug offenses) provided more than 34 thousand enlistees in FY 2006 at a time when the services faced ambitious recruiting objectives at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—though those waivers would later correlate with significant increases in disciplinary issues and attrition rates. Growing the number of recruiters can enable the services to effectively connect with candidates interested in and eligible for military service when there is a pool of American youth with a propensity to serve and the ability to meet enlistment requirements. And marketing campaigns that highlight the long-term financial benefits of serving in the military–from steady pay and retirement benefits to the GI Bill and VA home loan–may have provided an appeal to potential recruits when there is slack in the labor economy with scarce employment opportunities and low wages.

To a degree, a strong economy and competitive private sector opportunities are contributing to current recruitment woes. Yet there is reason to believe that the recruiting challenges facing the services are fundamentally different from those the services have encountered in the past at a structural level, thus requiring different approaches. What is driving the change, and how should the services adapt to the new recruitment landscape?

Generational Change

The current recruiting challenges are largely driven by a generational shift in the dynamics and values of the target recruitment population. The characteristics of Generation Z, or “Gen Z,” (born between 1997 and 2012) require the services to rethink their approaches to meet their recruiting goals. The services aim to recruit individuals between the ages of 17-24, meaning that the bulk of the potential recruit population in FY 2023 was born between 1999 and 2005. Research suggests that Gen Z represents a more significant change in preferences from previous generations such as Gen X (born 1965-1980) and Millennials (born 1981-1996). These changes include:    

  • A preference for working in industries or with companies with which they are familiar.
  • A desire for a range of diverse opportunities over the course of a career within a safety net of stable employment. Gen Z employees will remain loyal to an employer if such conditions are met.
  • An emphasis on working at an organization whose values align with their own.
  • A desire for work flexibility and health and wellness programs

Decreased Exposure to the U.S. Military

The challenges are further exacerbated by a marked decrease in interactions between those who serve in the military and the broader U.S. population. Exposure to military service has decreased as successive generations of draft-era veterans have passed away and the smaller AVF provides less opportunity for citizen/servicemember interaction. The geographic distribution of military installations relative to population centers and the prolonged deployment of the U.S. military during Iraq and Afghanistan further serve to increase that distance. New approaches to recruiting must be designed to close this civ-mil gap and increase familiarity with military service.

Erosion of Benefits

20 years ago, the military was the only organization offering to pay college tuition as a condition of employment.  Now the practice is commonplace, with employers such as Amazon, Starbucks, and McDonalds also offering such benefits. Low-interest loans are widely available for college costs, with society seemingly willing to tolerate default on those obligations. Military entry pay is no longer competitive with what the market can offer.  DoD’s shift to the Blended Retirement System in 2018 transitioned retirement from a defined benefit (a pension plan) to a defined contribution (more similar to a 401(k)), which arguably decreased the advantage of military service over private sector employment. Taken together, the convergence of military and civilian benefits reduces the financial advantage that military service once offered. A redesigned recruiting approach would focus on the benefit packages that Gen Z, versus previous generations, values most. Alternatively, in the absence of increased benefit packages, the services must emphasize the unique nature of military service that has no civilian alternative.

Shifts in Societal Expectations

U.S. society increasingly equates immediate college attendance after high school with success and any other option as failure. Recruiting efforts must tackle that perception head-on. While military recruitment ads have long highlighted education benefits as a selling point, the services should consider emphasizing that military service does not need to be an alternative to college education; a successful career path can include military service followed by a college education rather than military service instead of a college education.

Moreover, Gen-Z may be a receptive audience to military service immediately after high school graduation. The generation is coming of age at a time when their counterparts in the Millennial generation reckon with the weight of student loan debt. The rising generation is more interested in gaining technical, on-the-job training in technical or trade skills than their Millennial predecessors, with only 51 percent of Gen Z high school graduates reporting interest in a four-year degree.

The Way Ahead

After years of success, the United States became complacent in its belief that the military would always be able to find a sufficient numbers of quality volunteers. Consequently, U.S. leaders rarely articulate the virtue of public service to the nation. That must change.

While military service may never be able to compete with the financial incentives provided by the private sector, military service provides the sense of mission, purpose, and stability that members of Gen Z seek that few other options offer. In their outreach, the services should emphasize the unique nature of service that matter to Gen Z. Ad campaigns should highlight the opportunity for a wide range of diverse experiences and career paths within the stable employment of a military career; the demand for individual excellence within a close-knit team dynamic; and the inherent value of service to their core ideals and values as citizens of the nation.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan E. Gilbert)

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Thomas Spoehr and Katherine Kuzminski, "Bad Idea: Relying on the Same Old Solutions to Meet the Military Recruitment Challenge," Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 10, 2023, last modified March 10, 2023, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-relying-on-the-same-old-solutions-to-meet-the-military-recruitment-challenge/.