The Army is launching a sweeping overhaul of its recruiting to reverse enlistment shortfalls

WASHINGTON – The Army is launching a sweeping overhaul of its recruiting to focus more on young people who have spent time in college or are job hunting early in their careers, as it scrambles to reverse years of enlistment shortfalls.

A major part of this is the formation of a new professional force of recruiters instead of relying on soldiers randomly assigned to the task.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, in an interview with The Associated Press, said some of the changes will begin in the next 90 days but a wholesale transformation will take years.

“We have not been recruiting very well for many more years than one would think from just looking at the headlines in the last 18 months,” Wormuth said, adding that the Army hasn’t met its annual goal for new enlistment contracts since 2014.

Last year, the Army fell 15,000 short of its enlistment goal of 60,000 while competing with higher-paying companies in a tight job market and trying to overcome two years of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down access to schools and public events. In the fiscal year that ended Saturday, the Army brought in a bit more than 50,000 recruits, falling short of the publicly stated “stretch goal” of 65,000.

Army officials, however, said that number still allows the service to meet its required total strength of 452,000. They said the Army also signed up an additional 4,600 recruits for future contracts, in an effort to build back the pool of delayed-entry recruits, which had eroded. Those recruits will go to basic training over the next year.

In testimony before Congress during his confirmation hearing, Gen. Randy George, who is now chief of staff of the Army, called recruiting ” the No. 1 challenge that we face and the one thing that we have to be focused on.” And he said the service must better tailor its messaging and marketing.

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The Navy and the Air Force also fell short of their recruitment goals for the fiscal year that ended Saturday, but leaders said both did better than predictions earlier this year. The Marine Corps and the tiny Space Force have said they would meet their enlistment targets.

Marine leaders, including Brig. Gen. Walker Field, who heads the Corps’ eastern recruiting region, have said one key to their success is choosing the right recruiters and encouraging successful ones to stay on. The Marines are also repositioning recruiting stations to areas where populations have grown.

The Army’s recruiting increase this year is considered a short-term victory made possible by a number of new and upgraded programs and benefits. But Wormuth said it will take systemic changes in how the Army approaches the labor market and sells the service as a career to turn things around.

At the same time, she said the Army must concentrate on the things it can change since there are many things it cannot, such as lack of fitness among youths and unwillingness to serve.

While recruiters have long relied heavily on high school seniors or graduates to fill the ranks, Wormuth said they need to reach beyond that pool and seek applicants on job sites like ZipRecruiter, Indeed or Glassdoor.

“The vast majority of people who are out there making employment decisions are people who have more than a high school education,” Wormuth said. “We need to figure out how to talk to that much broader labor market.”

She said that as more students go on to college, high school graduates now make up just 15% to 20% of the labor market. And the Army gets about half of its recruits from that shrinking population.

“We are not abandoning the high school market by any means,” Wormuth said, but by 2028 she wants the Army to have one-third of its recruits to have more than a high school diploma, rather than the current one-fifth,.

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Part of that is showcasing the Army’s higher-tech jobs with computers, satellites and artificial intelligence to lure those who may still think of the service as just infantry troops.

The other major change, which will begin to form in the coming months, is the transition to a professional recruiting workforce. Rather than using soldiers who are “voluntold” to take on a special assignment as recruiters, the Army is establishing a new permanent and specialized enlistment workforce.

There are currently about 8,000 Army recruiters, and only a bit more than a third have recruiting as their actual job classification.

The change will mirror how private companies work and will take several years. But Wormuth said the Army will quickly start a pilot program to begin identifying and training the new force. As part of the process, the Army will use a new aptitude test designed to identify soldiers who have a higher potential for being successful recruiters.

Other changes will include planning larger Army career fairs and restructuring the command leadership, elevating the head of recruiting to a three-star job with a four-year term for more continuity.

And, while the Army will still look at increased bonuses and push the health care and education funding in the military, money is not likely to be a key driver for recruits. And recruiters will need to sell the less tangible benefits of service.

“At the end of the day, I think that what offsets what we don’t offer in terms of compensation we make up for with being part of something bigger,” Wormuth said. “Ask anyone wearing a uniform in my office. They will tell you that what keeps them re-enlisting or staying until 20 years or beyond is the people and doing something that really matters.”