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The military has a serious recruiting problem — Congress must fix it

Mark Milley
Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana
FILE – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies before the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense during a hearing for the Fiscal Year 2023 Department of Defense, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 11, 2022. In prepared remarks, Milley painted a grim picture of a world that is becoming more unstable, with great powers intent on changing the global order. And he told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that they will bear the responsibility to make sure America is prepared. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The military services face serious recruiting challenges, and while members of Congress know about this looming threat to national security, greater public awareness may push lawmakers to provide those in uniform with a much-needed pay boost. 

“To put it bluntly, I’m worried we are now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force, with a small and declining number of Americans who are eligible and interested in military service,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, after hearing testimony this spring from service personnel leaders. “Every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction.”

Here are just a few of those metrics: 

  • After five months of the fiscal year, the Army reached only 23 percent of its active duty goal for new recruits.
  • Air Force officials welcomed 2,300 fewer recruits in the first quarter of this fiscal year than the previous year.
  • The Navy expects fewer deferred entry candidates this year than anticipated, which may lead to future personnel problems.
  • The top manpower officer in the Marine Corps, which traditionally meets its recruiting goals, told a Senate hearing in April that 2022 is “arguably the most challenging recruiting year since the inception of the all-volunteer force.”

The services are responding to these challenges with cash bonuses for signing on — some as high as $50,000. “We’ve never offered $50,000 to join the Army,” said Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, who heads up Army Recruiting Command. “We’re in a search for talent just like corporate America and other businesses. … We’re trying to match incentives for what resonates — for example, financial incentives.”

Stabilizing the all-volunteer force goes beyond bonuses. The number of Americans qualified to join the military is getting smaller. Of the nation’s 31.8 million 17- to 24-year-olds, only 9.1 million meet the initial requirements. Of those, only 4.4 million meet academic requirements. The pool is further reduced by those who have police records, drug/substance abuse issues, or are obese. These factors rapidly shrink the initial pool of 31.8 million to about 465,000 attractive recruits, many of whom will have opportunities in the private sector.

Further, because an individual may be qualified to serve does not equate to a willingness to serve. Recent Department of Defense survey data show that when young people are asked, “How likely is it that you will serve in the military?” only 11 percent responded “definitely” or “probably.” Recruiting is not helped when 52 percent of parents do not recommend military service to their offspring.

If recruitment pipelines dry up and services reduce end-strength numbers, current members must pick up the slack. Added stress, long deployments, and a strong civilian labor market create a retention nightmare — the Army, Navy and Air Force all have announced reenlistment bonuses for certain career fields and specialties, some in the six-figure range.

The clearest way to enhance both recruiting and retention is through pay raises. The 350,000-member Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has told lawmakers the fiscal year 2023 pay raise must keep pace with inflation — it’s the only way we can maintain a ready and resilient all-volunteer force. 

The best solution, one advocated by MOAA, is to address what’s known as the “pay gap” — a three-year span (2014-2016) when the military pay raise fell short of ECI by a cumulative 2.6 percent. Increasing the prescribed 4.6 percent pay raise by 2.6 percentage points would bring the scales back to alignment with the increased cost of labor. The result would be a 7.2 percent raise, just barely at the current inflation rate, year over year.

The 4.6 percent raise dictated by the Employment Cost Index (ECI) and proposed in the president’s budget does not go far enough. Inflationary pressures have soared in the 18 months since the release of the ECI figures, and our service members can’t afford to be held hostage by outdated data.

We must show support for those in uniform by securing the compensation they deserve. Anything less will continue to make recruiting and retention a challenge and weaken the military’s readiness and stability.

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral and a board member of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.”

Tags military pay military recruiting Thom Tillis U.S. armed forces

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