The Navy has learned the hard way that recruiting becomes more difficult as the national economy—despite rumblings of coming change—continues to expand. The career and educational choices available to American youth are greater than ever before. Unemployment is at some of the lowest measured rates in three decades. In addition, the population of veterans will decline drastically in the next decade, taking away prime examples of military service from society. All these factors will only worsen (from the Navy's perspective) in this new environment, making recruiting even harder. The Navy soon must learn how to compete for people, and young Americans must be persuaded that a short- or long-term military career is in their best interests.
The Demographics of Recruiting
The demographics of recruiting actually have been improving. The pool of high school graduates has been increasing for most of the past decade as the children of the baby boom generation come of age. In 1990, there were 3.5 million Americans reaching age 18, and that number only has gone up since then. In 2000, there were an estimated 4 million freshly minted 18-year-olds making important decisions about their futures.1 This, along with the fact that the accession needs of the military are far lower now than a decade ago, means that the recruiting challenge should be easy to remedy. The reality of recruiting in the 21st century, however, is quite the opposite.
Some might think that recruiters are the beginning of the process of attracting youth to careers in the military. Nothing could be farther from the truth; impressions formed about military service probably are set long before the minimum age of enlistment is reached.
Veterans are a strong link between the military of the past and the military of the future, but the percentage of veterans in the population is falling rapidly as those who served in World War II pass away. The presence of role models with military experience has a significant impact on the decisions made by youth. What might make an even bigger impact is the lack of veterans closer in age to high school graduates. The drawdown of the early 1990s resulted in a decrease in the number of veterans under 30. Fewer than 1 in 20 Americans aged 25 to 30 are veterans of the armed forces, and that ratio is likely to decline in the next decade.2 Without role models to showcase the military option, today's youth may find the attractiveness of other career options even greater.
Veterans in U.S. Population
The entertainment and media industries bombard us with images that shape and define public opinion about the military, but they are unlikely to provide any help in promoting military careers. Today, the most popular military-themed show on network television has its share of action and adventure, but remarkably is not centered on any ship, aircraft, or submarine. Instead, it focuses on the capable lawyers of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. The media have limited appetites for stories focused on the military. Some of this may not be the media's fault; the level at which information on current military operations is controlled may give them little with which to work. How many Americans are aware of the continuing operations that enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq or protect refugees in Kosovo? Without readily available information about the ongoing missions of the military, it is far too easy to forget their importance.
The Navy Cannot Be the Choice of Last Resort
Not long ago, one path to enlistment was the path of last resort. Those without a high school diploma, in legal trouble, or just unable to find a job looked to the military to provide a job, home, and three meals a day. The early 1990s may have raised false hopes for the future because the rapid drawdown created artificially low enlistment goals. Coupled with the economic recession, the recruiting environment of that period was more favorable than it probably ever will be again. In 1992, the percentage of enlistees with high school degrees exceeded 99%.3 It is a mistake to think this represents a more effective recruiting system or a trend that can be continued; it was a unique result of some rare conditions. More recently, all the services have found a short-term solution to recruiting shortfalls by increasing the level of non-high school graduates in accession cohorts.
Lowering standards, however, is an unsustainable strategy. The increasing demands of high-tech equipment and high-tempo operations mean that the enlistee who sees the military as a last resort is unlikely to fill any need the military will have. At the same time, economic expansion has reached such levels that there will be far fewer individuals who ever will have to consider the military for lack of other options.
Connect the Navy to the New Economy
What is the answer to the recruiting challenges of the 21st century? The answer is as simple to understand as it is difficult to implement: The Navy will have to accept that it is just one among many competitors for the youth of the country. Potential recruits must believe there are real benefits to enlisting.
Only part of the problem can be addressed with pay. The gap between military and civilian earnings will make a potential recruit think twice about enlisting. Goals that shape career decisions are becoming much longer-term; it is not the next paycheck that is being sought, but the career of paychecks that will be earned. The military may not ever be able to compete fully with the wages in the civilian world, but it can offer the skills and training that individuals include in their long-term ambitions.
The promise of civilian-applicable training seems like something the Navy has been capitalizing on for a long time. In a sense this is true, but training must take on a new level of importance. A core competency of the Navy is its ability to deliver the constant learning that is required to meet its myriad of personal, warfare, and advancement requirements. The link to civilian-applicable skills, jobs, and earnings they can produce must become a bigger part of that system.
Making sailors more marketable in the civilian workforce may seem counterproductive. Given more civilian-applicable skills, they would have even greater incentive to leave for higher paying jobs. The goal must be to make sure sailors feel it is their training and experience in the Navy that gives them the opportunities they want. Some may leave—but they already are leaving now. If there is the potential for continued improvement, then there will be an incentive to extend or reenlist.
Some of the most important changes involve little in terms of cost or new programs. For example, renaming the radioman rating to information technology specialist will reap benefits for years to come when it comes to attracting new recruits. The conversion will mean that future recruits and civilian recruiters will not be confused by an antiquated description of what modern communications involve. A major connection to the new economy is made with a simple change of words. This type of transformation should extend across ratings and across services. If that happens, future recruits will have a greater feel for what their ratings mean to the skills they will need in the future.
Emphasize Education as Much as Training
The ubiquitousness of high technology in the civilian world must be matched throughout the Navy. Training in computer literacy and software packages needs to extend to all departments, including the deck division. Such skills will be needed in all occupations soon, if they are not already. Some might resist training that would seem not to be a part of their primary jobs, but most will realize it is a valuable and useful set of skills that will benefit them in the future.
The Navy will need to emphasize education with the same fervor that warfare qualification was emphasized in the past. Is there any reason that a college degree cannot be obtained over the course of a career? Every 20-year retiree should have ample opportunities to complete not only an undergraduate degree but, possibly, a graduate degree as well. A warfare pin may be required to make chief, but it will have only a marginal effect on the dollar value of a civilian job offer. A college degree is the kind of portable credential that will pay benefits long past the next advancement exam or selection board.
The best leaders always have known that the development of subordinates is crucial to their happiness, retention, and effectiveness. What must evolve is our definition of development. "Development" in the Navy sense always has meant what will make each sailor a better sailor. But now we must ask what will make a sailor a better person and a better job candidate in the future.
All sailors, whether they stay in one term or make it to retirement, are future job candidates for some civilian employer. That future job is in the back of nearly every sailor's mind. Sailors need to be convinced at all points in their careers that the Navy is part of those long-term goals. The more they see the connection between service in the Navy and their future credentials (especially their future pay), the happier they will be and the longer they will serve. For every sailor lost to the civilian workforce because of the quality training they received while on active duty, several others will understand the benefits that the Navy provides.
The selling of the Navy continues through all points in a sailor's career. The Navy now is competing directly for the same individuals who are being sought not only by colleges and universities, but also by firms just as desperate for high-quality workers. Success in meeting future recruiting goals will depend on how well the Navy can match the demands being made by the youth of America and sell the opportunities the Navy offers.
Petty Officer Briem is a selected reservist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is assigned to be mobilized with the Military Sealift Command, Northern Persian Gulf Detachment 105. He is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Pittsburgh.
1. Population by age estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. (back to article)
2. Percentage of veterans in the population computed from data in the Current Population Survey of the Bureau of the Census. (back to article)
3. U.S. General Accounting Office, "Military Attrition: DoD Needs to Better Analyze Reasons for Separation and Improve Recruiting Systems" (Testimony, 12 March 1998, GAO/T-NSIAD-98-117). (back to article)