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.