Military recruiting is increasingly AWOL. Can we fix it?
It’s national budget time in Washington, so the conversation on Capitol Hill is focused on the numbers. But a significant number are overlooked, one that affects our ability to defend ourselves. At a time when threats abroad are increasing, America’s ability to recruit the volunteers needed to fully staff its armed forces is in decline.
The 2023 defense budget request just released by the Biden administration cuts the size of the military by 12,000 troops. It’s not that the military doesn’t need these soldiers – senior leaders have always said the military is too small. The reason for the reduction is that the military anticipates that it will not be able to recruit enough people to meet its quotas.
Indeed, this year, it is possible that none of the services will achieve their recruitment objectives. Only halfway through the exercise, the Army and Navy recently increased their bonuses for recruits to a record high of $50,000, the Air Force’s recruiting chief told his recruiters. “We have warning lights flashing,” and the Marine Corps is short recruiters because the recruiting business is now so difficult.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see this at a time when the government reports that there are 4.6 million more jobs open than unemployed Americans looking for work.
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A shortage of restaurant workers is bad enough, but a labor shortage in the US military creates a strategic risk for America at a time when threats are higher than they have been. been in modern memory.
But the employment situation is not the only factor. The recruitment crisis is the result of a “perfect storm” of multiple factors, all of which will come to a head in 2022.
Year after year, fewer and fewer young people qualify for military service. Widespread obesity (36% for 18-39 year olds), the growing number of young people with mental health issues (26% of young people aged 18-25) and other issues including criminal records or Lack of high school diplomas lowers the percentage of young people qualified to enlist without derogation.
In 2016, a Pentagon study reported that only 29% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 were eligible to enlist. Several sources are now reporting that number has dropped to less than 25%.
Another ironic complication: One of the Department of Defense’s new systems, the Prescription Drug Notification System, has the unintended effect of disqualifying large numbers of applicants due to new visibility into widespread drug use. psychotropic drugs prescribed by young people. About 1 in 12 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 take such drugs today.
But the biggest problem with recruiting is that fewer and fewer Americans now see the point of joining the armed forces. Young people usually join for economic or patriotic reasons, or a combination of both.
For those motivated by pay and benefits, companies like Amazon offer packages that include a salary of at least $15 an hour, fully funded tuition, health care, and 20 weeks of vacation. parent fully paid.
Conversely, a brand new Army soldier, assuming he works 40 hours a week (which is unlikely; most work over 60s), earns around $11 an hour.
Those who might normally be inspired to serve anyway are probably discouraged by the messages they are now receiving (or not receiving) from American society.
A recent Gallup poll showed that between 2017 and 2022, Americans who think military officers possess “high ethics” fell 10 points, to 61%, the lowest since they began measuring.
The very public disaster that occurred with the withdrawal from Afghanistan further contributed to the loss of public confidence in the military and its leadership.
For those who watch television, young people can easily find fundraising ads featuring tragically injured veterans, but little about the virtues of military service.
Civic education in schools that emphasizes national service is missing. National leaders and role models rarely, if ever, discuss the value of public and military service.
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Considering all this, why would a young person choose the army today? In fact, most don’t. For the few who do, many come from families already “bought” for service, children, or families with veterans.
This trend carries a great danger for America. Going back will not be easy.
Salaries and benefits need to be redesigned to be competitive with the private sector. The military, schools and society must do more to work with young people to help them overcome obesity and other qualification issues. And President Joe Biden, his administration, Congress, and other leaders must do much more to portray military service as a virtue and an unqualified “good.”
It’s not a transient problem like a pandemic or one that will resolve itself. We have to act. The alternative is a weakened and vulnerable America at a time of mounting threats.