Military Recruiting Faces Its Biggest Challenge in Years


Military Recruiting Faces Its Biggest Challenge in Years

May 13, 2022 5 min read

Former Director, Center for National Defense

Thomas W. Spoehr conducted and supervised research on national defense matters.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jade Nichols discusses reasons for joining the Marine Corps with her recruits during the Crucible at Parris Island, S.C. April 20, 2018. Chief Warrant Officer Pete Thibo / U.S. Marine Corps

Key Takeaways

According to military personnel officials at a Senate hearing last week, 2022 is shaping up to be “arguably the most challenging recruiting year” since 1973.

The public fiasco with the Afghanistan withdrawal shook many Americans’ confidence in the military.

There is a false notion that selecting military service closes other options like college or other careers. The opposite is true.

Since the transition to an all-volunteer force in 1973, there have been years when the military services missed their recruiting goals. These include 1999, 2005, and 2018 when either the economy was booming or casualties in a conflict were perceived high. But according to military personnel officials at a Senate hearing last week, 2022 is shaping up to be “arguably the most challenging recruiting year” since 1973.

The Army recently announced it has been forced to cut its size by 12,000 soldiers because it cannot find enough volunteers to fill its ranks. Speaking to the challenge, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville stated that they are in a “war for talent.” A war they are seemingly losing.

But it isn’t just the Army that is struggling. The Air Force’s top recruiter warned that the “warning lights” were flashing for meeting their 2022 goals. The Navy’s top personnel officer stated that while they may make their 2022 goals, they will do so only “by reducing the Delayed Entry Program from historic norms.”

Even the Marine Corps, the service that normally faces no problem meeting its goals, is struggling in 2022.

The big news is that the number of Americans qualified to join the military without a waiver continues to plummet. Since 2014, the military has been reporting that because of obesity, adverse criminal history, physical problems, drug use, or lack of a high school degree, only 29% of Americans qualify to join the military without a waiver.

At face value, that alone is an appalling statement about U.S. public health and schooling since military standards don’t require a candidate to be a superman or superwoman, just healthy and educated.

But it gets worse. During congressional testimony last week, McConville confirmed the percentage has dropped to only 23%, so now just 1 in 4 young Americans qualify.

The Department of Defense has not officially released the data, so we don’t know what is specifically causing the drop in eligibility. It is likely tied to health: American youth fitness is, frankly, miserable: 21.2% of youth 12- to 19-year-olds are obese and only 51% of high school students attended a physical education class in an average week.

But qualified to serve doesn’t equal desire to serve, and desire—or “propensity,” as the military calls it—is also declining. The latest DOD polling data for youth ages 16-21 reflects that when they are asked, “How likely is it you will serve in the military?”, an average of only 11% respond “definitely or probably” and that trend is declining.

What is causing the drop in interest in joining the military? A number of factors are in play.

Other more lucrative opportunities are available. Companies like Amazon and Starbucks are offering jobs with starting pay over $15 an hour, with college benefits. Unemployment is almost down to pre-pandemic levels. I don’t know about you, but all the restaurants I patronize sport “help wanted” signs.

The public fiasco with the Afghanistan withdrawal shook many Americans’ confidence in the military, to the point that key influencers such as parents and grandparents may exert a negative influence on a youth’s inclination toward military service.

Veterans play an important role in promoting the virtues of public service. Every year, the percentage of veterans in American society declines due to the declining size of the military since World War II. Fewer veterans mean fewer youth are exposed to these great examples of American society.

Civic education in U.S. public schools is often atrocious. Half of young adults ages 17-35 could not name the four largest branches of the U.S. military. One in four are unable to name the three branches of the federal government. It’s logical to ask why would a young person decide to join the military if they don’t know anything about it, or their government for that matter.

At a time when threats to U.S. national interests are soaring, now is the worst possible time for the military to face a manpower crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the march in Europe, Chinese President Xi Jinping threatens Taiwan on almost a daily basis, and perennial bad boys—the ayatollah in Iran and Chairman Kim Jong Un in North Korea—continue to make trouble for their neighbors and the U.S. The finest weapons in the world are useless without skilled service members to operate them.  

So, what’s to be done?

First, the Pentagon needs to get serious about recruiting. Compensation and benefit programs need to be reimagined to ensure they appeal to today’s youth, not the young people of 20-30 years ago. Is pay most important? Time off? Location? The Pentagon doesn’t know. As it stands, each of the military departments are forced to figure out recruiting on their own. Recruiting needs a national fresh look and increased attention.

The military needs to steer clear of politics. Americans expect their military to remain apolitical and many believe that line is becoming blurred, and that worries them. That needs to stop.

Schools, parents, coaches, and indeed everyone who influences American youth should portray military service as a virtue. It’s not only virtuous to serve your country, but nearly everyone who serves comes away a better, stronger, more vigorous citizen. It is a mutually beneficial choice. Veterans are more likely to vote, more likely to engage in community volunteer programs, and more likely to take part in local activities.

There is a false notion that selecting military service closes other options like college or other careers. The opposite is true. The average American life expectancy is now nearly 79 years. Within that life, there is more than enough time for military service, college, and a civilian career (or two). Indeed, military service opens—not closes—doors.

Finally, America needs to tackle this issue of an ever-decreasing percentage of Americans who cannot qualify for military service.

Social media, video games, and an overall trend toward more sedentary lifestyles are leading to future generations of unfit and over-stressed American youth. There is no silver bullet for this problem, but many communities have successfully taken the issue on with after-school sports programs and activities. We need better data and better solutions.

Military recruiting is not a transitory problem. It won’t be fixed by next year. But solutions are possible and ignoring this situation will not fix it. Our national security depends on getting this right.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal

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