The U.S. military is in a bitter fight to attract and retain recruits, and its most potent enemies are around every corner.
“It’s Wendy’s. It’s Carl’s Jr. It’s every single job that a young person can go up against because now they are offering the same incentives we are offering. That’s our competition right now,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marco Irenze, the head of the Nevada Army National Guard recruiting and retention battalion.
Sgt. Maj. Irenze and other National Guard officials briefed reporters Wednesday on the recruiting crisis confronting America’s armed forces. Guard and active-duty service leaders say they face one the worst recruiting environments in the 50-year history of the country’s experiment with an all-volunteer force.
With the exception of the Marine Corps, each service expects to fall short of its recruiting goals in fiscal 2023. The Army expects to be about 10,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal, service officials told Congress in April. The Navy is on track to be about 6,000 short. The Air Force will miss its mark by about 10,000, officials said.
The Army, Navy and Air Force offer enlistment bonuses to entice recruits. Incentives that once made military service attractive are now matched by private-sector employers equally desperate to fill job vacancies.
“We used to be the sole entity … that said, ‘Hey, we’ll pay for your college,’” Command Sgt. Maj. John Foley of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command recently told the Military Times. “Now lots of organizations, lots of companies out there are doing the same.”
The crisis has extended to National Guard units, where officials describe a brutal competition against private-sector companies pulling out all the stops to attract workers as the economy struggles to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the most challenging recruiting environment the Department of Defense has probably ever faced, and that reaches across all components,” Air Force Col. Anthony Pasquale, chief of the Air National Guard‘s recruiting and retention division, said during Wednesday’s briefing.
The Air National Guard, Col. Pasquale said, is at about 96.7% of its end strength goal, though he stressed that the summer months — traditionally the most fertile season for recruiting — will get the Guard closer to its targets. He said his projections show the Air National Guard landing 3,000 to 4,000 service members short of its goal.
For the National Guard, the recruiting crisis comes at a delicate moment. The Guard is still reeling from the public relations fallout of a major leak of sensitive information from within its ranks. Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, 21, was charged this month with six counts of willful retention and transmission of classified information while he was assigned to the Air National Guard on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.
National Guard units also were involved in a major political controversy tied to the Pentagon’s now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Several Republican governors, who technically have authority over Guard troops in their states, refused to comply with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s mandate, effectively putting Guard troops at odds with the Defense Department.
The vaccine mandate was repealed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act passed late last year, but more than 8,000 service members had been kicked out of the ranks.
It’s unclear how much of an effect that mandate had on recruiting and retention efforts across the armed forces. Critics say the mandate exacerbated the ongoing recruiting crisis by kicking out thousands of otherwise qualified troops and potentially dissuading some young Americans from signing up.
Whatever the reasons, the recruiting struggle has been felt in all corners of the country.
In Washington state, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Chris Perez said his state’s Air National Guard now sits at about 95.6% of its end strength goal with a few months left in the fiscal year.
“Fiscal year 2023 has definitely been a challenge but also an opportunity to expand our capabilities,” he said.
Washington Guard members, Sgt. Perez said, are taking more active roles in recruiting by attending events at schools and other locations to entice young men and women into the ranks.
Those efforts are especially important in today’s economy, where businesses of all types and sizes are taking desperate measures to fill open positions. That dynamic has left the military competing to an unprecedented degree with the private sector.
“We do face stiff competition … with competitors that work in Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, especially in the cyber section,” Sgt. Perez said. “We do offer great incentives, great benefits and the training that can help an individual land or connect with a civilian company” after they leave the armed forces.
Some specialists argue that the military should implement sweeping changes to its recruitment methods. Each service operates its recruitment arm, and some observers say the Pentagon would be better served by housing the entire military recruitment operation under one roof.
“The U.S. military should consolidate redundant recruiting organizations from the separate services into a joint recruiting force that could tailor solutions to individual applicants and distribute expertise and excellence across the six branches,” Marine Corps veterans Geoff Irving and Taylor Quackenbush wrote in a March analysis for the U.S. Naval Institute.
“By eliminating redundancies, the military services could allocate cost savings toward increased community outreach, improved marketing and other innovative and experimental recruiting programs,” they wrote. “This approach would require humility from senior military leaders as each branch takes pride in its respective identity and seeks to control that identity through its recruiting branches. Radical consolidation of recruiting is an example of a plan that, if well implemented, could prove that senior military leaders can respond to challenges in novel and creative ways. Proving competence is the best cure for a perceived lack of public trust.”