Econ­omy gets tough on mil­i­tary re­cruiters

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

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 — 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 by the next day 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, “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.”

Mul­ti­pronged ap­proach

To avoid a re­peat of last year’s short­fall, the Army is tak­ing a mul­ti­pronged ap­proach. Army of­fi­cials 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 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 faceto-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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Army last year missed its re­cruit­ing goal for the first time in more than a decade. The Navy, Air Force and Ma­rine Corps hit their goals last fis­cal year, though some of them barely cleared the bar.

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