Military struggles to bring Gen Z into the armed forces

Military officials cite young people’s lack of familiarity with the military as one of the main challenges affecting their recruitment efforts, as the services are facing historic shortages.

“About 20 years ago, just over a quarter of youth had never thought about serving in the military. In recent years, more than half of youth have never thought about serving in the military. Youth of today are not saying no to what the military has to offer. They simply don’t know much about military service,” Ashish Vazirani, under secretary of the Army for personnel and readiness, said during the House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.

This lack of awareness combined with a strong labor market,  restricted access to schools in the post-Covid world, concerns about the risks of military service and distrust in public institutions have “turned into a perfect storm,” creating a difficult recruiting environment, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Alex Wagner said.

In fiscal 2023, the military services collectively missed recruiting goals by about 41,000 recruits. 

“Look, our military is facing its greatest recruiting shortfall since the inception of our all-volunteer force over 50 years ago…There is no doubt that the dwindling connection between our nation’s younger generations and knowing family or friends who have served in the military are influencing their willingness to put on America’s uniform.” Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J) said.

“We know this is a challenge money alone cannot solve,” he added.

In addition, over 77% of today’s eligible population doesn’t qualify for military service without some kind of a waiver, a factor that is greatly contributing to the shrinking recruitment pool. 

“The causes of the recruiting challenges we face are complex and multifaceted. Some contributing factors are shifts in the nation’s economy and population. Others are unique to the military,” Agnes Schaefer, assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said. 

Schaefer said it’s important to understand what eligible applicants are looking for in their career paths and adjust accordingly.

“Clearly, they [Gen Z] are looking for purpose in their careers,” she said. “They’re looking for flexible career paths, which would cause us to sort of shift away from our hierarchical siloed career paths that we currently have to more of a jungle gym model, which is what they’re looking for. So we are trying to infuse some more of that flexibility,” she said.

For the last several years, the Army has been struggling to meet its recruitment goals. In 2023, the service missed its recruitment goal by approximately 10,000 recruits. 

While some of the efforts the service put in place, including the marketing campaign ‘Be All You Can Be” and the future of soldier preparatory course are paying off, officials say it’s not nearly enough.

Earlier this year, the Army conducted a study to get to the root causes of the ongoing shortages and identify long-term solutions. The study showed that the service doesn’t have a robust recruiting enterprise that is crucial to bringing in the talent.

“The study looked at 25 years worth of recruiting data, identified external and internal root causes of the recruiting crisis, examined the recruiting structure and performance of our sister services, as well as best practices from the private sector and developed recommendations for how the army could transform its recruiting enterprise to better position itself as an employer of choice,” Schaefer said. 

Multiple levels of hierarchy, having no single point of accountability and recruiters not being trained or managed in alignment with workforce management practices hinder the Army’s efforts. The service has also struggled with incorporating data collection into its recruitment process, Schaefer said.

Based on the study’s results, Christine Wormuth, the secretary of the Army, said that the service will change its approach to selecting and managing recruiters. It will also create an evidence-based learning capability in the headquarters that will allow for the incorporation of data collection into the recruiting process. Lastly, the recruiting enterprise will get consolidated and realigned as a command led by a three-star general and will report to the secretary of the Army. 

“We are making a shift towards a professionalized recruiting force, which is an industry standard. Right now, we are working off of a borrowed manpower model in which we pull people from different specialties to become recruiters,” Schaefer said. 

“We were looking actually at the other services as well. And one of the things that makes the Marine Corps so effective in recruiting is that recruiting is a path to leadership in the Marine Corps. You have to be you, have to be a recruiter in order to, you know, become the commandant,” she added.

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