Military Recruiting Woes

The US armed forces are looking for a few more good men and women.

A story that has been circulating in my Facebook circles has bubbled up to the New York Times (“With Few Able and Fewer Willing, U.S. Military Can’t Find Recruits“):

These are tough times for military recruiting. Almost across the board, the armed forces are experiencing large shortfalls in enlistments this year — a deficit of thousands of entry-level troops that is on pace to be worse than any since just after the Vietnam War. It threatens to throw a wrench into the military’s machinery, leaving critical jobs unfilled and some platoons with too few people to function.

Covid-19 is part of the problem. Lockdowns during the pandemic have limited recruiters’ ability to forge bonds face to face with prospects. And the military’s vaccine mandate has kept some would-be troops away.

The current white-hot labor market, with many more jobs available than people to fill them, is also a factor, as rising civilian wages and benefits make military service less enticing.

So, on the surface, this isn’t all that surprising. Since we shifted to an all-volunteer force just shy of fifty years ago,* recruiting has had ebbs and flows depending on the public mood and the civilian economy. And we’ve been talking about young Americans being too fat to qualify for military service for pretty much the entire history of this blog—just shy of two decades now.

But longer-term demographic trends are also taking a toll. Less than a quarter of young American adults are physically fit to enlist and have no disqualifying criminal record, a proportion that has shrunk steadily in recent years. And shifting attitudes toward military service mean that now only about one in 10 young people say they would even consider it.

This is especially interesting in light of changing drug laws that have decriminalized marijuana. The attitudinal problem, though, is far worse. We’ve reached the point where those willing to serve are almost exclusively those whose close family members have already served. It’s become very much a family business, even on the enlisted side. (The officer corps has been that way for quite a long time.)

To try to counter those forces, the military has pushed enlistment bonuses as high as $50,000, and is offering “quick ship” cash of up to $35,000 for certain recruits who can leave for basic training in 30 days. To broaden the recruiting pool, the service branches have loosened their restrictions on neck tattoos and other standards. In June, the Army even briefly dropped its requirement for a high school diploma, before deciding that was a bad move and rescinding the change.

Obviously, relatively few recruits are worth $50,000; that figure is for those who qualify for the highest-skill training and take on the longest commitments. Most of those people have better options than enlistment, including college. And, while $50,000 sounds like a lot, they were offering me $40,000 to enlist in the Navy’s nuclear program way back in 1983-84. It’s just not a ton of money for signing your life away for 4 years or more (and, really, 8, as everyone should have learned during the Stop Loss days during the high of GWOT).

The Army is the largest of the armed forces, and the recruiting shortfall is hitting it the hardest. As of late June, it had recruited only about 40 percent of the roughly 57,000 new soldiers it wants to put in boots by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

That’s massive number. The entire active duty Army is only 481,000-odd people. (I assume these numbers are just for active component recruiting but it’s not directly stated in the report.)

The other branches are not having any easier of a time. The Navy and Marine Corps do not release recruiting figures before the end of the fiscal year, a spokesman said, but both have acknowledged that it will be hard for them to meet quotas this year.

Even the Air Force, which has rarely had trouble attracting talent in the past, is about 4,000 recruits short of the level it typically reaches by midsummer.

The Marines and Air Force have always been comparatively easy sells. The Marines because they’re small and have positioned themselves as “elite.” So, young men—and the Marines are much more male than the other services—who want to prove themselves with a short stint in the service tend to look to the Corps first. The Air Force, on the other hand, offers far and away the best quality of life for its junior enlisted personnel and tends to offer better technical training that’s directly marketable in the outside world.

I’ve skipped all the anecdotes in the story about how ground-level recruiters are finding innovative ways to approach prospects. But this top-level view is wroth sharing:

“Bottom line, up front, we are in a week-to-week dogfight,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr., commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. “We are growing hopeful that we may be able to barely make this year’s mission, but it’s uncertain.”

General Thomas said the short-term problem of Covid-19 kept recruiters away from county fairs, street festivals and their most productive hunting grounds, high schools. The relationships that recruiters were not able to cultivate face to face during the pandemic’s early stages, he said, mean there is now a drought of graduates signing on the dotted line.

A modest recruiting bump from snappy ads the service ran before screenings of “Top Gun: Maverick” helped a bit, he said. But the general pointed to larger, longer-term concerns about the shrinking pool of young Americans who are both able and willing to serve. In recent years, the Pentagon has found that about 76 percent of adults ages 17 to 24 are either too obese to qualify or have other medical issues or criminal histories that would make them ineligible to serve without a waiver.

And what the military calls propensity — the share of young adults who would consider serving — has fallen steadily for several years. It stood at 13 percent before the pandemic began, General Thomas said, but is now 9 percent.

“There are just lower levels of trust with the U.S. government and the military,” he said.

So, aside from push forces from a weak civilian economy, there are pull forces that attract folks to military service. Something like Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks will naturally get young men’s blood boiling and ready to volunteer to fight. For a while. But years-long, unsatisfying slogs like the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan will naturally make service less attractive—even in their immediate aftermath. Zeitgeist forces—think the spate of Rambo imitators and the original Top Gun in the mid-1980s—can also get people charged up. I’m not sure Top Gun: Maverick will have that effect, as its popularity is mostly nostalgic. (It’s a very good movie, in some ways better than the original, in its own right—but its main appeal is revisiting an old story.)

Until reading Thomas’ remarks, it hadn’t really occurred to me that the aftermath of the Capitol riots and the general tenor of American politics is naturally going to depress patriotic fervor. It has to be hard to get young folks to sign up to fight for their country when they don’t feel drawn to it.

_______________________

*With all of the focus on bodily autonomy for women in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe, it’s interesting that, less than six months later, Congress did the same for men by eliminating mandatory military service.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    A not insignificant contributor to this problem is the reputation some military recruiters have built for themselves as liars.

    Before the Internet it was easier to get away with telling a kid that they’re going to be firing large weapons to the glory of ‘Murica, only to find out that they are actually hull-maintenance techs scraping rust off of ship’s hulls once they arrive at their duty station.

    These days, however, there are entire internet forums devoted to the stories military recruiters tell in order to get people to sign on the dotted line.

    Like the corporate America CEOs they serve, promising the moon and stars got them through their current quarter quotas, but have destroyed long-term prospects for the organization.

    At some point it’s not just somebody else’s problem.

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  2. Mikey says:

    Crusty old retired NCOs of my acquaintance insist these recruiting woes are entirely due to virile young American men not wanting to serve in a “woke military.”

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  3. Kathy says:

    How about a desire to avoid extended deployment on nebulous fronts in unending wars?

    Related, I recommend How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks, law professor and Pentagon and State Department veteran.

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  4. Slugger says:

    We could start an American version of the Foreign Legion with eligibility for a green card after three years of service as an inducement for signing up. The French have about 8000 men in service right now and use them frontline especially in hazardous and unpopular situations.
    I actually met a Legionnaire in about 1962. I was a teenybopper then. I was incredulous when he said that involvement in Vietnam would lead to an American defeat. America never loses, and our generals are so much smarter than a bunch of Frenchies.
    A foreign legion would make military service more attractive by shielding natives from harm.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    The military really needs to take a look at ‘criminal history’ disqualifier. Taking into account at what age the offense occurred and the type and severity makes sense. It would open a population to recruit from and provide opportunity for young adults who have made mistakes to get out of the milieu that they have lived in. Just looking at opening up to those with a criminal history of possession and street level distribution would be a good place to start. It’s not like that isn’t happening in the military already.

    I have to admit, the stat that jumped out at me was the one one physical fitness to serve. We really need to get our kids and grandkids out of the basement and away from video games.

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  6. Argon says:

    It has to be hard to get young folks to sign up to fight for their country when they don’t feel drawn to it.

    As Kathy notes…
    ‘Forever wars’ fought for mutating causes in places where any advances made by your sacrifice will evaporate immediately upon leaving tend to reinforce that ‘feeling’. Plus knowing that the GOP will do anything to ‘support the troops’ except pay for their benefits if the alternative is to lower their own taxes.

    Perhaps better to join the Peace Corps instead.

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mikey:

    Crusty old retired NCOs of my acquaintance insist these recruiting woes are entirely due to virile young American men not wanting to serve in a “woke military.”

    Just as likely that as conservative soldiers increasingly portray the military as property of the Republican party, left-leaning youth are increasingly less interested in joining.

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  8. R. Dave says:

    I would think the “physical fitness to serve” issue is pretty easy to solve by just implementing a provisional enlistment status that allows people to join who are too obese for active duty and then have them lose the weight on the job as they go through some sort of extended/modified basic training. If they haven’t lost it by the end of the 6-12 month modified training period, they get discharged for medical reasons.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    A quick check suggests that pay for an E3, a private first class, which is not a raw recruit but a capable soldier, is between 22 and 26K depending on station. ~$500. week. If our Pfc was on a 40 hour week that’d be $12.50 an hour. That’s less than a Starbuck’s barista makes, and baristas never have to drill, never have to carry heavy loads through miserable weather, never have to tolerate a rigid hierarchy and occasionally get shot at.

    How is this a mystery? What rational human being would take a much harder job for lower pay than they can find literally anywhere? Long periods of separation, rigid rules, no weed, constant training and the possibility of dying for no discernible purpose. I’m shocked we get anyone to sign up.

    The pay + signing bonus + benefits does not add up to an attractive picture. You want people? Pay them.

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  10. R. Dave says:

    ** Sorry for doing two posts in a row. No edit button available to me today for some reason, so I can’t add this to the first one.

    My other thought is that they should really consider eliminating the multi-year upfront commitment for initial enlistment. I think there are probably a lot of young people who would be interested in joining the military but aren’t certain they’ll be a good fit for the lifestyle and culture and get steered away from giving it a go because of the multi-year commitment. I was definitely one of those people in my early 20s. Maybe let people do an initial enlistment period of 6-months or 1-year before signing up for the longer enlistment periods? I know the idea is that they don’t want to waste time and money training a recruit who then quits on them, but retaining someone is always easier than getting them in the first place, and honestly, every major company in the country has that issue and seems to manage despite totally at-will employment.

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  11. R. Dave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The pay + signing bonus + benefits does not add up to an attractive picture. You want people? Pay them.

    I think the retirement benefits and tax advantages make it a reasonable deal, but personally, I don’t know a lot 18-year olds who think that far ahead. Recruitment would probably be easier if they reworked the package to favor higher pay and fewer/cheaper retirement benefits.

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  12. Michael Cain says:

    @R. Dave:

    Maybe let people do an initial enlistment period of 6-months or 1-year before signing up for the longer enlistment periods?

    Out of curiosity I went and looked at the length of Army training these days. Basic is ten weeks. Advanced, which immediately follows, is four to 52 weeks depending on specialty. Presumably most of those specialties requiring lengthy training would be off-limits to someone enlisting for only a year.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @R. Dave:
    I’m coming up on 68 and I never even considered retirement til about 5 years ago.

    My daughter works in a grocery store. She gets IIRC, $21 an hour (plus health insurance) to re-stock yogurt. I had thought of suggesting the military for her but for the fact that the military is awfully rapey when it comes to female soldiers, and the pay is ridiculous.

    Basically my pitch would have to be, enlist so you can take a 40% pay cut to work a hell of a lot harder and take much greater risks, and add to those risks the distinct possibility that you’ll be raped by your fellow soldiers and the crime will be covered up by your officers. But if you somehow manage to serve out 20 years you’ll get a pension.

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  14. Scott says:

    @Michael Reynolds: To be complete, you need to add in about $1650/month in housing and subsistence allowance which are tax free. Add another $400/month if you have dependents. Plus you won’t shell out anything for healthcare.

    Total Regular Military Compensation (RMC) calculated for an single E-3 at Fort Sam Houston is $48,495.11.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott:
    Thanks for that more complete picture. It still leaves an E3 earning $100 a week more than a grocery clerk. Except that the clerk only has to work 40 hours, and the soldier is regularly required to work much longer hours, indeed 24 hours a day in some circumstances, often while separated from family and friends, and surrender a substantial amount of freedom and autonomy.

    For the record, I have deep affection for the military. I grew up in an Army home – my father was a warrant, 20 year man – sometimes in base housing. The Army was great for me as a dependent. But when my Dad said he could get me into West Point as a way to avoid the Vietnam era draft, I just had to laugh. As much affection and gratitude as I have for the Army, I’d have gone to Canada before I’d join.

  16. Mikey says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    the soldier is regularly required to work much longer hours, indeed 24 hours a day in some circumstances, often while separated from family and friends, and surrender a substantial amount of freedom and autonomy

    As a military retiree myself, I will say the above is far more significant than pay when it comes to decisions to serve, or continue service.

    Enlistment is financially not a bad deal for a kid straight out of high school, as @Scott points out. But in an economy at full employment, and after having grown up seeing a fairly constant stream of flag-draped coffins for as far back as they can remember, those kids are not going to be inclined to join up even if the pay is good.

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  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Mikey:

    Enlistment is financially not a bad deal for a kid straight out of high school, as @Scott points out.

    You’re probably both right about that. I’m looking at it from a skewed, very California, high cost, high pay perspective. Probably looks much better in Arkansas or Iowa. Or literally anywhere else with the possible exception of New York City.

    I love California, but I’ll be damned if I know how a working person survives here. Maybe I’ll go ask some of the tent people under the freeway.

    1
  18. inhumans99 says:

    I just want to point out that even though Michael R is diving into the weeds figuring out the actual pay and benefits of joining the military vs a pretty good job a grocery store, historically, one did not join the military for the take home pay, but everyone know this.

    For me, I think part of the problem the military has with trying to recruit is that Trump is on the record on multiple occasions indicating that he wanted to use the National Guard/Military to put down “Antifa,” or BLM protests across the U.S..

    I have also known folks who went into the Military or joined the National Guard, and I like to think that they would be aghast at the thought of the President of United States commanding the Generals in the Military branches to tell the National Guard/Army soldiers to arrest me with force or consider using lethal means to stop me from the act of protesting what I considered a wrong.

    The Military should have pushed back much harder when Trump casually considered using them against U.S. Citizens, such a nasty thing for Trump to consider (such a third world/Middle-Eastern Dictator thing to say and desire, I am honestly most disappointed by his Base, which consists of a lot of members of the Military, that even his Base did not blanche when Trump said this), I sincerely believe that this has hurt their recruitment efforts.

    Of course, Trump’s desire to see the National Guard/Military out in force to quell protests was conveniently something he no longer fervently desired when he was watching his Base try to bring the country to its knees on January, 6th.

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  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: ” Probably looks much better in…”

    Yeah, I dunno. Where I live, in terms of opportunity for the young, is probably a cross between Arkansas (for wages) and major Metro (for property prices/rents) and we had only two out of 250 or so seniors at the high school seek opportunity in the military. And we’re pretty conservative (as in racist and transphobic) here.

    1
  20. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Looking only at the $$ is a mistake. What unemployment brings is more than poverty of the wallet, it brings a poverty of the soul. “Not just a job, an adventure” is sublime marketing, but doesn’t work nearly as well on those who have a job.

    For damn sure I was running from something. Not sure what, but I wouldn’t have been running nearly so hard if I had had something to look forward to. Just wanted someplace to be I guess. For my recruiter, easy meat.

    1
  21. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Scott: Not the mention the education benefits and VA loan benefits. If want to develop yourself into a leader and get travel, training, adventure, and occasionally scared shitless. .. there’s really no comparison to a Barista or Grocery Clerk.

    I can guarantee the young men and women I served with were in a better position present and future after 5 years than their peers at Starbucks or Publix.

    No disrespect to the kids that didn’t serve. The military isn’t for everyone…for the kids that do join—-it’s isn’t a good deal past 7-8 years.

    Then there are people like me who rather enjoyed the honor of destroying the enemies of the United States. Not necessarily in the patriotic sense but from the sense that understanding the art and science of war is useful in how one operates as a black man in America.

    I wish more Black kids would join, we’d be in a better place socially in the long term.

    4
  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    I’d be more impressed with military benefits were it not for the fact that we’re scrambling to find any support for my Dad who now has dementia. Not to mention the paperwork nightmare of trying to get his survivor benefits transferred to his current wife. But that’s a side issue.

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  23. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: No complaints here. The bureaucracy we’ve created so that one “undeserving” person doesn’t get more than they are entitled makes it a nightmare for almost everyone to claim their entitlements without a fight. It’s the bureaucratic American way: let 1000 honest people suffer so 1 scammer doesn’t get away with fraud.

    Persistence is the secret sauce to getting what your Dad rightfully earned so stay at it.

    2
  24. AmyH says:

    @Tony W: Except for the fact that Hull Maintenance Technicians are responsible for welding, pipefitting, and construction/repair of ships.
    Boatswains Mates are the ones actually doing the scraping and painting.
    R,
    Hull Maintenance Technician Chief Petty Officer

  25. Gavin says:

    Trump called everyone who dies in the military during war “Suckers and Losers.”

    “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” Shortly thereafter, he referred to the more than 1,800 US Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

    And there’s more – it’s by far not just 2 incidents.

    Anyone following and/or supporting Trump is.. not supporting the US military. That’s a fun reality about the Republican party!