To help the military meet its recruitment and retention goals, Congress needs to pass the National Defense Authorization Act and an appropriations bill for fiscal 2024, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Tuesday.
Hicks highlighted two challenges facing the military: ensuring a healthy civilian-military relationship and recruitment and retention. She said these must be addressed going forward to help the military take care of its people.
One part of this is passing the 2024 NDAA.
“One of the strongest signals of healthy civil-military relations we can send right now is Congress passing a fiscal year 2024 Defense appropriations and soon,” Hicks said at a Center for New American Security event in Washington. “While we appreciate the continuing resolution that keeps the government open, the clock is ticking again with 10 days now until the continuing resolution expires. The now-routine failure to secure needed resources for defense and for the whole government erodes military trust in civilian leaders. If you add up the months, DoD has been under a CR since 2011, it totals four years worth of delays, delayed new programmings, delayed training and delayed permanent change of station moves. We cannot afford any further delays.”
Another piece is ending Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) hold on military nominations. While the Senate confirmed three nominations last week, there are approximately 370 nominations left.
“This hold is unnecessary, unprecedented and unsafe,” Hicks said. “It’s bad for the military. It’s bad for military families and it’s bad for America and it needs to stop now. Confirmation of these leaders is critical to our national security.”
Meanwhile, the Defense Department is looking to solve its recruitment challenges with incentives, targeted ads, hiring more recruiters, as well as through policy changes to increase the applicant pool, such as raising the maximum age of enlistment, and creating programs to help people meet eligibility requirements. Hicks said the military is also looking for creative recruitment solutions, including by sharing stories meant to improve peoples’ familiarity with the military and desire to serve.
“It is our responsibility to tell younger generations the benefits of military service,” Hicks said. “Of course, we bear significant responsibility in DoD leadership and on Capitol Hill for making sure military service is rewarded and rewarding. That’s why Secretary Austin made taking care of our people a department priority. Because not only does taking care of our people help with recruiting and retention, it’s the right thing to do … while recruitment remains challenging, we’ve been surpassing our retention goals and we take that as a strong indicator that we’re meeting our value proposition and that matters.”
DoD is working to provide support to military members and their families, Hicks said. Specifically, the department is focusing on childcare, spousal employment and food security. For example, universal full-day kindergarten, incentive pay for childcare workers, using the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act to recognize valid occupational licenses across state lines and expanding eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance. Congress is also working to help to with similar initiatives to help military personnel and their families.
“In all 40% of our current fiscal year 2024 budget request goes toward taking care of our people,” Hicks said. “We know that when we take care of the basic needs of our service members and their families and improve their quality of life, they can focus on their mission to defend the nation. This includes competitive compensation, and this year, we’re proposing a 5.2% pay raise for our workforce; that’s the highest in more than 20 years. Together with last year’s raise, our service members will see a 10% increase in base pay in just two years.”
According to Hicks, the DoD must focus on people. She said that in the past the department was not following through on this, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has made people one of his priorities. For example, the DoD has established a workforce council, focused its budget on recruitment and retention, as well as pay and promotion policies.
While the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges to recruitment, the department is working to fix it, including by using data to make informed decisions. Hicks added that returning to schools to recruit is an important aspect of this. She said that using advertisement and social media influencers is also critical to help recruit and share stories. Hicks said that the DoD should find more creative solutions and improve how it leverages data to help it recruit and retain too.
Hicks said that the military should be representative of the United States and that requires a significant amount of outreach. It also includes reaching out to younger generations like Gen Z.
“We see strong evidence that Gen Z has a deep desire, like many generations before, a deep desire to have service to make sure they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. We just have to make sure the military is a place both that really delivers on that and that they see as delivering on that. That’s the job that’s left to us.”
Kirsten Errick covers the Defense Department for Federal News Network. She previously reported on federal technology for Nextgov on topics ranging from space to the federal tech workforce. She has a Master’s in Journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in Communication from Villanova University.