“Digging ourselves out of a hole.” Some thoughts on the current recruiting crisis

“Digging ourselves out of a hole.”

Some thoughts on the current recruiting crisis


Martin N. Stanton

Overview:  In the past year we have been bombarded by stories about the military – particularly the Army, experiencing a recruiting crisis that has caused major shortfalls in manning the force.  There are various reasons given for this recruiting shortfall.  From pushback against the “woke” military by traditional military families to non-participation by normally liberal/progressive communities,  the impact of the Afghan debacle and the mismanaged “Global War On Terror” (GWOT) conflicts of the first two decades of the 21st century to highly publicized veteran’s issues (suicide etc.), the involuntary separation of thousands of servicemembers who were reticent to take the COVID vaccine, changing demographics, competitive pay scales in the civilian workplace and cumbersome recruiting processes, the causes given for the recruiting crisis are legion and likely all true to some extent.  

The recruiting crisis we find ourselves in is a “Perfect Storm” resulting from the confluence of three major issues:  First – a loss of public confidence in the military’s leadership, next-sclerotic recruiting processes and finally – a limited variety in terms of service offered that does not appeal to the modern workforce.   To overcome recruiting shortfalls and rebuild the force we are going to have to overcome each of these.  We have to dig our way out of this hole.

  1. Rebuild Trust with the Public:  The military used to enjoy high approval ratings with the American public.  It does not do so now.  (Although it is rated higher than politicians and the media, the fact that the military currently enjoys only a 60% approval rating is a precipitous fall in public confidence).  The last few years have not been good for the military’s image.  Some of this comes from bad feelings leftover from the chaotic finale in Afghanistan.  Defeat seldom inspires people.  This is especially true when the whole multi-decades effort seems ill thought out in retrospect.  Add to that the disconnected nature of today’s military and political senior leaders and their very publicized tone-deaf decisions (the COVID shots discharges were especially disastrous) and it’s not hard to see that watching this cavalcade of failure has impacted the eagerness of the potential recruits.  In many ways the military’s senior leadership has lost the trust of the American people from whom the ranks of their forces are drawn.  This is the kind of trust that takes years (decades) to rebuild.   but we must start somewhere.  Here are some thoughts:
    1. Do a better job with strategic advice to civilian leadership:  This is a long lead time project but the time to start it is now.  Our strategic performance since 9-11 has been abysmal.  Much of this can be laid at the doorstep of senior civilian leadership in multiple administrations but who gives that civilian leadership military advice?  We kept the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns going with vague/indefinable end-states and hope as a method to achieve them.  GEN G.C Marshall would have pushed back against such strategic malpractice but the senior leaders of the 21st century weren’t up to the task.  They ignored the fact that although our military is a volunteer military it is still a citizen military.  Citizens (and their families) don’t appreciate their lives and personal sacrifices expended in ill thought out open-ended military adventures.  The current recruiting crisis is a shot-over-the-bow to our nation’s senior military leaders, the recruiting pool isn’t up for another 20-year road-to-nowhere that ends in defeat.  Do better.
    1. Take better care of the servicemembers we have: Fairly or unfairly the military has recently acquired a reputation for not taking care of its people the way it used to.  We can find money to pay for Transgender surgery but cannot seem to get rid of black mold in the barracks.  There’s a lot of complaint on social media by servicemembers and ex – service members about bad conditions and uncaring chains of command.  A perfect example of this is a recent social media post by an E-4 about to ETS from the 82nd Airborne complaining that he is being made to pay for gear his chain of command directed him to leave behind during the Kabul evacuation.  We obviously only see one side of the story in this young soldier’s post, but having been involved in the Kabul evacuation I can see this occurring (especially if the chain of command isn’t aggressive about insuring proper loss accountability is done as soon as possible after the directed abandonment).  At any rate the complaint, unanswered by the Army, is another black eye that everyone on social media can see.  Things like this, the suicide epidemic and the COVID shot fiasco all contribute to a growing sense amongst the population of potential recruits (and their families and influencers) that something is not right within the military.  Word-of-mouth advertising from servicemembers who leave the military with a positive impression can be an incentive to potential recruits, conversely stories of bad living conditions and neglectful chains of command can be a powerful disincentive.  Given the prevalence of social media, we have a vested interest in insuring our servicemembers are well taken care of.   At the end of the day keeping barracks in proper repair and taking care of soldiers isn’t that hard.  That we have acquired a reputation for not doing so is, again, a direct reflection on the military’s senior leadership.
    1. Improve soldier pay – particularly for enlisted and NCO ranks:  Hand-in-hand with taking better care of service members is paying them more in line with what the civilian job market pays.  A young person who can make more at Amazon in an entry level job than he/she can in the military has less incentive to join.  Combine this with the “recruiting poison” stories of soldiers who must go on food stamps to feed their families and non-comparable pay is yet another way it seems the nation’s leadership has broken faith with its troops.  Come up with all the charts showing how all the “bennies” provided equate to X-more amount of money per month you want to, that E-3 taking home less than his high school buddy working at Home Depot isn’t interested.
    1. Reaffirm the social contract with the Guard/Reserve components: The forever GWOT with its near continuous activations of National Guard and Reserve components damaged the social contract that the Guard/Reserve would only be activated in times of true national emergency.  These continuous activations made it hard for individuals to maintain their civilian careers and had a negative impact on Guard Reserve retention.  At present it is far too easy to use the Total Force for operations that are not well thought out and ratified at the proper political level.  It needs to be codified into law that the “Active” force is the only force deployed to combat operations outside CONUS short of a formal declaration of war.  That the Guard and Reserve be only activated on declaration of national emergency (IE Activate but not deploy outside CONUS short of a declaration of war – not for political stunts like Capitol security in 2021) and the IRR is not activated until after war is declared.  Having these things codified into law would go a long way towards taking the “forever war” syndrome away from Reserve components service and might encourage more recruits.
    1. Invest more in Veterans services:  The US has several generations of men and women who have served in the GWOT and are suffering from the impacts of their service.  We should not discount the impact that observing family or community members who are veterans not receiving adequate help has on the recruiting base.   Effective, responsive veteran’s services are a strategic force sustainment issue in a volunteer military.  We need to approach it in that manner. 
  1.  Re-evaluate, Simplify and Streamline our recruiting processes:  Despite the undoubted impact of the Afghan debacle and bad publicity over a myriad of issues, to a certain degree, the Army is in a recruiting crisis of its own making.  It’s recruiting process is too time consuming, is burdened by too many disqualifications on potential recruits and has a cumbersome exception to policy process. 

It’s not all bad news, the Army seems to have tackled the physical fitness disqualification issue by establishing pre-enlistment PT programs that get recruits into better shape.  This can’t do anything but help but in isolation it’s not going to solve the problem.  In a similar fashion to the causes of the recruiting crisis the solutions to the recruiting crisis are multiple and complimentary.  No one change will move the dial that much, but numerous positive changes might move it sufficiently.  Here are some suggestions for recruiting the forces going forward:

    1. Re-evaluate our standards for acceptance: A frequently quoted statistic in stories about the recruiting crisis is only 25% of the people between 18 and 30 can even qualify to get into the military.  This says more about our standards than it does about the population of America.  You recruit from the population you have, not the population you wish you had.  We need to recognize that the population of people we recruit from is significantly different than it was even thirty years ago.  A far higher percentage of young people have been prescribed disqualifying medications, larger percentages of them are out of shape….etc.…etc.  Our insistence on keeping the same standards means that the population of perfectly acceptable recruits is smaller.  Interestingly the Army had the same problem in WW2 – competing with the massively expanding Naval services for quality inductees.  Its solution was to lower standards for induction and accept additional attrition in training in order to man the force.  It cost more, but it got the job done.  The same dynamic is true today. 
    1. Review current list of disqualifications – eliminate as many as possible:  We can considerably expand the number of potential candidates by judiciously removing disqualifications that have piled up on the recruiting process gradually over the years – like barnacles on a boat.  The sheer number of disqualifications from service is a major hinderance in meeting recruiting goals.  We need to review all current disqualifications with a jaundiced eye.  Especially those medical ones that deal with prescription drugs for ADD or depression.  The youth of today are overprescribed for these drugs.  Example – the fact that a person took anti-depressants briefly should not require that person to wait a whole year before being able to enlist.   A shorter time-period (or a simple evaluation by a psychologist on contract to the recruiting command) would likely suffice in most cases. 
    1. Empower lower-level recruiters with waiver authority:  re-emphasize interviews and officer/NCO judgment.  For the remaining disqualifications – make all but a few waiverable and SIMPLIFY the waiver process.  We lose too many recruits while they are waiting for their waiver papers to make it through the approval process.  Give recruiting company and battalion commanders waiver authority.  We need to trust the judgment of the men and women who run our recruiting stations.  Facilitate access to psychological and physical examiners that can work with these recruiters to make an informed recruiting decision.  Bring back the individual interview and assessment by the recruiter as a major determinant as to whether to recruit an individual. Bottom Line – expand field recruiter authority to make the enlistment call and give waivers.
    1. Re-Engage with the traditional high recruiting states:  The South and the Mid-West are the traditional localities for recruiting, increase emphasis there.  Re-engage with community and veteran leaders about recommending service.  Be frank about what the military is doing to improve servicemember care and other hot-button issues that suppress recruiting.  Stress military service as a stepping-stone to a more productive life (Skills, discipline GI Bill etc.).  Specifically in places like rural areas hard hit by the Fentanyl epidemic, emphasize with community leaders that military service is a way to save / salvage young people and give them direction in life.
    1. Stop placing emphasis on low recruit producing populations; The military must welcome qualified recruits from all segments of society.  However, we must be smart about how many recruiting dollars we spend to specifically go after segments of society that do not typically enlist.   The famous cartoon ad featuring a sergeant whose parents were in a same-sex marriage was (at best) a well-intentioned effort to expand outside the traditional recruiting base.  How many recruits did it produce?
    1. Re-engage with the criminal justice system:  It’s easier than ever for a young person to run afoul of the law these days.  Isolated examples of criminal behavior should not be a discriminator except in the most serious violent felony cases.  There’s a lot of salvageable first offenders out there.  Allow recruiters to work with local law enforcement and judiciary to interview and recruit likely candidates from the criminal justice system (with the recruiter having the final say as to who is – or isn’t, a worthy candidate).  Once again, make the waiver process QUICK and simple.
    1.  Expand/modify high school programs.  Change high school ROTC to High School RTC (Readiness Training Corps).  Make the emphasis on physical training and preparation of the student for service.  Teach Service Values as well as life/adult skills such as checkbook/credit management.  Make the program attractive to even military skeptical students and parents.  Make it a requirement for schools to get federal funds. 
    1. Expand option for Enlistment and BCT in the summer between Junior and senior years of HS:  The services should run special BCT Classes in the summer for enlistees who join in their junior year (with their parent’s permission).  Extend enlistment to those Juniors who are age 16 ½ and older (The younger members of their school Cohort who will graduate at age 17 ½ – again with their parent’s permission).    Servicemembers who complete BCT and return to HS for their senior year can be further trained by reservist guard units in their community or by the RTC cadre/contractors.  After graduation they would go to complete advanced MOS training and either assimilate into the regular force or return to assigned Guard/Reserve units.
  1. Develop more flexible options for service – especially in the reserve components: The military has also been slow to recognize changes in the 21st century workplace and in the very nature of “work” in America that most young people experience today.   It’s recruiting model and terms of service are largely a legacy of the Cold War Army I first enlisted in back in the 1970s.  We have to be a lot more flexible in the terms of service options we offer to today’s population of potential recruits.  Here are some ideas:
    1. Reduce time-in-service requirements for as many MOS as possible:  Four years is just too long for many young people to commit to.  The requirement for four years costs us recruits.  We should look at bringing back three or even two-year enlistments.  This would create additional personnel turbulence and training costs, but it could help fill slots that are currently empty.  Combine the shorter term of active service with longer IRR commitment.  (IE two years active and six IRR).  As stated earlier, tie IRR involuntary recall conditions to Formal Declaration of War (Vice any kind of lesser “emergency”) to overcome sceptics disillusioned by Reserve / Guard misuse during the GWOT. 
    1. Make service in the IRR pay.  Give incentive pay of $100-$200 per month to IRR members who can show up once a year for a week’s refresher training and pass the PT test.  Fit in other incentives that make sense (voluntary training participation points in exchange for re-imbursement).  In the scheme of the defense budget 2-3 Billion dollars annually in exchange for 2-400K (relatively) fit IRR members that could be subject to recall in time of declared war would be a bargain.
    1. Make direct recruitment into the IRR an option:  We could also expand the IIR by allowing people to enlist directly into it directly, go through BCT (but not be given further specific MOS training) and then revert to IIR status to serve the full eight years.  Apply the conditions of IIR service as described earlier (IE only activated in event of declared war… etc.).  In the event of declared war these soldiers could be activated, sent to a quick refresher period and the appropriate AIT and then integrated into units.   This form of enlistment would also give us a pool of (relatively) ready manpower available in time of war.  Enlistment for straight to-IIR service could also serve as a halfway house for those young people uncertain about commitment to a full enlistment term of active duty.  It would be a vehicle for those IIR enlistees who develop an interest in serving further an easy way to integrate into the Active or drilling Reserve/Guard force (IE apply for change of status – go to AIT and integrate into new unit).  Limit IIR service as a junior enlistee without assigned MOS to a max of 8 years – at the conclusion of which the servicemember either options into further MOS training and integration into a Guard/Reserve unit (or the Regular Army) or receives an honorable release from the IIR.  Guarantee that individuals who complete IIR service in this manner will be exempt from a future involuntary recall or draft.
    1. Make Basic Training / AIT in home state an option for Guard/Reserve enlistees.  There is a population of people who are working successfully that might be interested in Guard/Reserve service but who cannot leave work for the normal period of initial training currently required.   Make it a recruiting option for Guard and Reserve units to train their new people entirely in home states at the armory or the state training area (Like they used to before WW2).  The Canadian military allows reserve units to train their new recruits at the unit in home station (normally the local armory) two weekend drills a month plus summer training periods.  This would allow people to keep their civilian jobs while going through basic and AIT.  For example, new recruits in the Florida Army National Guard could train at Camp Blanding one summer and do additional training at weekend drills (and online for some classroom items) then finish BCT the next summer.  From there they could do specific MOS training and qualification at drills and over subsequent summers.  The six months of OSUT currently required are just too long for a person who has a good paying civilian job to commit to.   This option would provide for those who would like to serve but don’t currently have a vehicle to.
    1. Expand the age limits for enlistment:  There are plenty of people in their mid -30s to early 50s who are in superb physical condition and who would (in many cases) bring significant civilian skills to the Army.  We need to open enlistment to these people as well.  National Guard and Reserve (Both drilling unit and IIR) should especially be given flexibility to recruit from this cohort.  Mandatory retirement age should also be automatically extended out to 62 in certain non-combat MOS and policies instated that allow for individual review for requested extension to age 62 in all MOS.
    1. Expand direct transition – Civilian Skills Integration:  Make it easier to join for people already qualified in a complex civilian skill (medical, cyber, maintenance, engineering …. etc.).  Develop a list of direct commission/enlistment skills that can be sent to abbreviated basic training and military familiarization courses and then integrated into units where their skill is needed.  The reserve components especially should be given maximum flexibility to recruit these people.

Summary:  The military has dug itself into a recruiting hole over the past few years through a series of unfortunate events and bad decisions.  We need to re-evaluate our performance at the senior leadership levels and do better.  We also have to understand that many of the recruiting problems we have today are self-inflicted.  The US had an Army of over 8 million men in uniform during WW2 with a much smaller population.  The standards for acceptance for service then were not as high as they are now, but they got the job done.  There’s a huge population out there in the US and the force we need to man is a fraction of the size it was in the early 1940s.  There’s no reason we can’t do this, but we have to change the way we do business.  Hopefully some of the suggestions I have outlined will do this.

The next (and more difficult) question is: “What kind of force do we need?”  But that’s another paper.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site