Righting a Recruiting Downturn

29 November 2022

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For FY 2022, US Navy met its recruiting goal in one of four accession categories (active enlisted).
Image credit: US Navy

The US Defense Department is experiencing its most severe recruiting challenges in more than a generation. The services are moving forward with a diverse set of solutions to not only recruit but retain servicemen and -women. Group Editor Marty Kauchak reviews some developments.

In one sign of the increasing, diverse challenges facing the Pentagon, it attention-getting that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall placed a heavy emphasis on personnel issues, including recruiting and retention, during his keynote speech at this September’s Air Force Association conference.

The timing and imperative to elevate the topics were driven by the reality that many DoD active and reserve components are experiencing a downturn in recruiting successes – threatening to upend planned, near-term service force structure forecasts.

Recruiting Shortfalls

First, the most recent, somewhat startling recruiting data from the services:

The US Army missed its fiscal year 2022 (October 1, 2021-September 30, 2022) recruiting goal by 15,000 troops, marking a 25% shortfall from the 60,000 new soldiers it sought to recruit. This is the worst result for the Army in more than a generation – since the US military became an all-volunteer force nearly 50 years ago.

The Air Force Recruiting Service told MS&T the US Air Force goals and final (accessed) tally for its components for FY22 were: Regular Air Force: goal 26,464; accessed 26,466; Air National Guard: goal 9,198; accessed 6,903; Air Force Reserve: goal 8,200; accessed 6,225 and Space Force: goal 523; accessed 549.

Leslie Brown, Chief, Public Affairs, provided some context for that service’s challenges when it was noted, “The Air Force oftentimes sees challenges in recruiting Special Warfare Airmen, combat support Airmen (EOD and SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape] specialists) and qualified Cyber Specialists.”

He added, “We don’t have a challenge recruiting pilots.”

The Navy reported it met recruiting goals in one of four categories for FY22 (goal and (actual)): Enlisted (Active): 33,400 (33,442); Officer (Active): 2,507 (2,298); Enlisted (Reserve): 7,400 (5,442); and Officer (Reserve): 1,360 (982). This data was furnished with the caveat that several categories’ “final” numbers may slightly change pending processing work.

The Marines, unable to provide its FY22 totals as this was written, is a branch that typically enters the new recruiting year with 50% of its recruiting goals for the year already met, and was entering FY23 having only met roughly 30% of its target, according to service documents.

The Headwinds

A confluence of forces is challenging DoD officer and enlisted recruiters to meet their goals.

Mirroring one major macro-economic force also evident well beyond the States, the US Labor Department’s latest unemployment figure (through October) was 3.7%... representing hale and hearty alternate public and private sector employment opportunities for qualified individuals. The red-hot hiring picture was on AFRS’s short-list of its recruiting challenges: the propensity to serve in the military is down to below 10% among youth today; the percentage of youth qualified to serve is a mere 23%; and a shortage in the labor market is affecting the military just like it is affecting companies across the US.

The command public affairs lead established a key differentiator between military service and other employment options, noting “the Air Force has something to offer that corporate America generally doesn’t, and that’s the value proposition. When an Airman puts on the uniform, he or she doesn’t have to ask what purpose their life has, they know. It’s to serve their country.”

Money, Tats and Other Incentives

AFRS’s Brown also delved into that service’s wide-ranging near-term strategies to enlist and retain its service members.

Of little surprise, the air service has requested to extend initial enlistment bonuses from FY22 into FY23. “We will look at bonuses on a quarterly basis to see where we may need to adjust to ensure we are recruiting the right Airman at the right time. But we are still waiting for final authority on that,” Brown added.

In terms of addressing quality of life issues, the Air Force has recently updated its THC policy as part of a two-year pilot program. The public affairs official recalled, “In the past, a positive urinalysis would automatically disqualify all candidates; now in special cases, some positive tests could get a second chance.”

Further Air Force’s tattoo policy has seen an update recently as well. The command media officer concluded, “In the past hand tattoos were disqualifying (except for a ring tattoo), but keeping up with what has become socially acceptable, we have allowed some hand tattoos as long as they are under 25% of the hand and of good taste (no extremist, gang affiliation, etc.”

These focal points, designed to help recruit and retain individuals, complement adjacent incentives at the Air Force secretariat level. Secretary Kendall noted his service is also finalizing new rules that liberalize and streamline rules for women aircrew who want to continue flying while pregnant, and among other efforts is stepping up its activities to combat sexual harassment and cope with the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion.

Of added significance, the Army’s final FY22 recruiting results occurred despite some steep enlistment bonuses and programs designed to better prepare individuals for recruit training.

Short-Term Prospects

The prospective military recruit generally has a choice – either serve his or her nation in uniform, pursue other public and private sector career choices, or continue formal education – sometimes in a Reserve or Guard capacity. The US services are focused on skewing this decision-making process in their favor. While more money is on the table in terms of enlistment bonuses, there are also an increasing number of quality-of-life enhancements benefitting not only the new recruit but more senior members eligible for reenlistment as well.

At the same time, macro- and micro-economic forces may be slightly shifting to reduce the number of new job opportunities available beyond the military, given gathering consensus in economic and financial quarters that there will be a shallow recession in the US and elsewhere in early 2023. Given these converging forces, DoD’s recruiting and retention outcomes should slightly improve in 2023.

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