A directive to recruit more troops coupled with a thriving U.S. economy has sparked a “perfect storm” and created one of the toughest environments in decades for uniformed recruiters, Pentagon officials and outside analysts say, as the military doles out bigger bonuses and tweaks its approach in order to attract the nation’s best young talent.
Booming employment markets — the U.S. economy added a strong 224,000 jobs in June, the government said Friday — and soaring stock values on Wall Street traditionally have made it difficult for military recruiters to pitch men and women on a career in the armed forces, according to researchers, who say the correlation has held true for at least a half century.
But the sustained strength of the U.S. economy over the past five years has taken the challenge to a whole new level, and the true depth of the problem came into focus last year when the Army fell short of its recruiting goal for the first time in over a decade.
The commander in chief even took time during his Fourth of July “Salute to America” event to pitch the idea of military service and on Friday was already claiming results.
“Our job numbers are so good that our military has a hard time getting people,” Mr. Trump acknowledged to reporters on the White House lawn Friday, “and I think really you’re going to see a big spike. I’ve already heard it, a lot of people calling in.”
The Pentagon could use the help.
The Army set a goal of 76,500 recruits and pulled in fewer than 70,000, according to Defense Department figures.
The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps hit their goals last fiscal year, though the services barely cleared the bar in some cases. The Navy’s goal was 39,000 and signed up 39,018 recruits, Pentagon numbers show. The Marine Corps beat its 31,556 goal by 11 recruits, and the Air Force exceeded its 29,450 threshold by 893.
Although each of the services, including the Army, expect to hit their goals this year, analysts say, the military has compounded its recruiting challenge by trying to expand the size of its ranks. The Army, for example, is aiming for a 500,000-member active-duty force over the next 10 years, meaning it needs to maintain aggressive recruiting goals to keep up.
“Consistently, the research finds that recruiting is more difficult, the supply of high-quality recruits is more difficult when the economy is booming,” said Beth J. Asch, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. who specializes in military recruiting. “There’s another factor here, which adds the cherry on top. The Army is growing, as are the other services. So you have a bit of a perfect storm of a really strong economy and having a larger force.”
Army officials seem confident that they will meet their mark this year, though they readily acknowledge that they are facing headwinds.
“This environment is as challenging as we’ve faced — 3.6% unemployment. We have no benchmark historically for the all-volunteer force,” acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently told the Military Times. “We statistically can make it, but we’re going to have to run through the finish line — undoubtedly a full sprint.”
To avoid a repeat of last year’s shortfall, the Army is taking a multipronged approach. Army officials this month said they will offer bonuses of up to $40,000 for some recruits who sign a six-year commitment.
The Army’s total of enlistment bonuses rose by $115 million last year, according to The Associated Press, and almost $100 million was spent on bonuses for those already in the service.
The Marine Corps increased its largest award from $8,000 to $9,000 in 2018, service numbers show. What’s more important, officials say, is that they have put a priority on the in-person recruiting process with a full understanding of the private-sector opportunities available to young recruits.
“Marine recruiters have made [the goals] without lowering any standards, even in a tough recruiting environment where the sort of high-achieving young people we need have plenty of options,” Gunnery Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman, told The Washington Times.
More broadly, military leaders also said they have embarked on a more wholistic overhaul of recruiting and have rethought each aspect of the practice for a target generation that includes many born after the turn of the century.
“We’ve increased the number of recruiters by the hundreds, put them on the streets,” acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said last month when he was serving as Army secretary. “We changed our storefronts, we moved our storefronts, we’re getting deeper into social media, we’re overhauling all the networks and IT behind that, we’ve changed ad agencies, we’re going to come eventually with some new slogans and commercials and things like that. We’re doing everything we can to reach those kids.”
Central to the effort has been a more concentrated focus on recruiting in the nation’s largest cities. The Army says it has seen a 27% increase in sign-ups in Minneapolis. In New York City and Baltimore, the numbers have shot up 19% and 17%, respectively, over last year.
Analysts say that effort, too, is partly a response to the strong economy and the changing landscape of the American job market. The military traditionally found greater success in more rural areas with lower average paychecks and fewer jobs. Technology, mobility and connectivity, analysts say, have eroded the distinction.
“In some ways, we’re getting more homogenous,” said Ms. Asch. “Those differences may not be so stark … that differential between cities and non-cities is getting smaller.”
Each of the branches also has ramped up its social media presence, moving far beyond the traditional TV and radio commercials. The Army has instituted a “virtual recruiting teams” program that assigns tech-savvy soldiers to monitor social media and respond to candidates’ questions.
Those teams, the Army says, ultimately direct the potential soldier to their neighborhood recruiting station.
Those and other programs underscore the military’s efforts to engage with young people on their turf, but officials say face-to-face conversations remain the most important part of the process.
“While we regularly update our digital presence and connect with our audience on social media, we still feel the conversation about a young person’s future and the possibility of service is one best had in person, kneecap to kneecap,” Sgt. Kronenberg said.
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