Army officials, like their brethren in each of the other armed services, are troubled by the fact that a shrinking minority of American young people meet the physical and educational qualifications needed to join the military. And while Army officials say they want to grow that potential recruiting base, they say it’s also possible that they haven’t been measuring all the right things.
So going forward, it’s possible that written tests which gauge traditional measures of academic aptitude won’t be the biggest factor in whether a potential recruit is deemed eligible for military service.
“What we haven’t really explored yet is a non-cognitive evaluation, a whole-person determination of whether or not you’re going to be successful in the Army,” said Maj. Gen. Allen Batschelet, the commander of the Army’s recruiting command, at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army. “Industry is moving very quickly in that direction, and we’re right there with them.”
As of now, only about 3 in 10 Americans who are of age to join the military are actually fit to serve under the current standards, which measure physical fitness, whether a recruit has graduated high school and his or her score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude (ASVAB) test.
By those measures of quality, none of the armed services have had much trouble getting top-notch recruits during the relatively sour economy of the past six years. In 2014, every service met its quality goals, and by raw numbers, the active duty Army and the National Guard met 100 percent of their recruiting objectives. The Army Reserve achieved about 91 percent.
Workforce competition heating up
But as the economy improves, the military will increasingly be competing with private employers for the same pool of talent — even talent that’s identified through “non-cognitive” measures.
Army officials say they’re definitely interested in doing whatever they can to help influence better educational outcomes and better health among the nation’s young people, but in the meantime, they also want to alter their recruiting criteria to look at broader indicators of what’s likely to make someone succeed in the military.
Lt. Gen. James McConville, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the service is increasingly realizing that test scores aren’t the only good predictor of what will make a successful soldier.
“If we take a look at a lot of our general officers right now, they might not have finished West Point at the top of their class, but for some reason, they’ve been able to do this business for a while,” he said. “It’s the same thing with our non- commissioned officers. They may not have had the highest SAT scores or GPAs, but there’s a resilience and intensity, an inner drive. They want to serve and they’re going to be successful. We’re trying to identify those people. It’s a different way of looking at it.”
Scientists at the Army Research Institute are beginning to examine ways to measure traits that are difficult to capture via standardized tests.
The questions the service is asking go far beyond an 18-year-old’s academic aptitude, and things the Army cares deeply about. How adaptable is the potential soldier to uncertain situations? How resilient might that soldier be when things get difficult?
“‘Stick-to-it-iveness,’ for lack of a better scientific term, is something that we’ve found to be something that allows soldiers to be more likely to complete their first-term enlistments,” Batschelet said. “We’re already doing a little bit of that measurement in some tests that we’re giving recruits, but we think there’s a lot of potential to expand that non-cognitive screening. We also know that if you score in the mid-range on the ASVAB today, but you have strong markers on non- cognitive measures, you are likely to do better in your career than the people who have above-average ASVAB scores. It’s really fascinating work that we’re looking at, and we think it has great potential.”
By coincidence or not, the Army’s search for broader measures of recruiting quality appears to mesh closely with the Army “Operating Concept” leaders unveiled in Washington this week.
The blueprint emphasizes the need for forces that can rapidly innovate in response to quickly unfolding crises around the world through a flexible blend of conventional and special operational forces.
“What we know is that we need very resilient soldiers that can handle stress in a lot of different types of environments,” McConville said. “We need agile and adaptive leaders that can go to Liberia and work on Ebola instead of going to Afghanistan. We need soldiers who can become part of cohesive teams that come together quickly, and we’re looking at science to identify folks through these non-cognitive measures.”