In 1977, I entered the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program at Tulane University—four years after the all-volunteer force (AVF) was established and two years after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. It was a challenging time for the military, which struggled to recruit and fought to retain high-quality personnel. While I was excited to serve my country and become a U.S. Marine, not all my teachers and coaches endorsed my decision. Like many Americans, they wondered if a career in the military was the best choice for a young person.
Today the U.S. military again finds itself in a challenging recruiting environment. While the AVF has been a stunning success, instrumental in creating the world’s strongest military, current recruiting challenges are revealing fractures and structural defects in the system.
The Marine Corps is struggling to recruit talented young Americans in a competitive economy and from a society increasingly distant from the military. And we are not alone; all the services are experiencing similar challenges. This concerns me both as the Commandant and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because the Marine Corps relies on the other services, and they rely on us, across a web of interdependencies. Recruiting challenges in a single service affect the whole force, and when those challenges are endemic across every service—as they are today—the effects are magnified. They impact the ability of the joint force to fight and defend our nation.
The services already recruit some of America’s best, but we must do more to make military service attractive to talented Americans who have little knowledge of, or exposure to, the military. While each branch is uniquely positioned to diagnose its own challenges and develop its own solutions, there is value in framing this discussion in the broader context of the joint force. If any of the services had identified the appropriate remedies, all would have implemented them by now. The ongoing struggles—and in some instances failures—are evidence of a lack of understanding of the challenges confronting us.
The most frequently cited factor affecting military recruiting is the strength of the U.S. job market. Indeed, the joint force is subject to the laws of labor supply and demand just like any other large organization. Yet, some of our deepest challenges are chronic, indicating that the strength of the economy may be less critical than commonly thought. For example, the Marine Corps has struggled—in good economic times and bad—to produce and retain an adequate number of pilots, even for the newest, most modern aircraft. These struggles have persisted despite ever-increasing bonuses—further evidence that the decision to join or separate is not purely economic. The Air Force has faced similar difficulties, but on a much larger scale.
Many occupational specialties—across all the services—have been critically short for years. The protracted nature of our recruiting challenges suggests the economy alone cannot be blamed. Nor should it be. Military leaders should (and do) welcome a robust U.S. economy; they should not (and do not) hope for an economic downturn to boost recruiting. Neither do they aspire to serve as a repository for those displaced from the labor market who lack a sincere desire to serve and are simply seeking a living wage and benefits.
Other factors exacerbating military recruiting challenges are long-standing trends, familiar to many. These principally include the declining number of young Americans who are eligible for service as a result of drug use, obesity, criminal records, or other physical and mental health problems, and a waning interest in military service.
The inability of many young Americans to meet basic military eligibility standards is a national problem beyond the scope of this article. Military leaders have few levers to pull to increase the number of Americans eligible for service, and the biggest and most immediate lever—lowering standards—is not one military leaders or most Americans want. To effect enduring change requires understanding and addressing the declining propensity to serve.
Several factors are at play. One is familiarity. A growing percentage of those serving in uniform have a close relative who also served (or is currently serving). In other words, those who are most familiar with the military are most likely to enlist. While the military will continue to attract those who are acquainted with the military and its lifestyle, we must do more to reach those who are unfamiliar. Failing to do so risks reinforcing an increasingly closed system and its related pathologies.
Shifting demographics also play a role. There is evidence that the existing narrative of military service, one that appealed to earlier generations, does not resonate in the same ways with Gen Z. In addition, increasing fragmentation of the media ecosystem means recruiters’ marketing efforts have more difficulty breaking through the noise to reach and motivate the intended audience. In years past, the military could increase spending on marketing and be fairly confident of receiving predictable returns on those investments. The assumptions underlying that predictability, however, are changing. Simply increasing the advertising budget to amplify existing narratives is unlikely to be effective in the future. The services need new narratives and new vehicles for communicating those narratives. Looking at the uncertain impact of traditional advertising may offer a broader lesson: The military cannot rely on yesterday’s solutions to solve today’s or tomorrow’s problems, as similar as they may seem.
There are also structural factors that exacerbate recruiting challenges. For example, the services are asking individuals from Gen X (commanding generals and recruiting district commanding officers [COs]) to develop recruiting plans and strategies that individuals from Gen Y (recruiting station COs and recruiters) will implement to attract individuals from Gen Z.1 Generational gaps have always existed within the AVF, but the current pace of social change amplifies these differences. All three groups process information differently, place differing value on the same set of incentives, and have different expectations regarding how great a voice the individual recruit will have in the process. Structure influences behavior, yet the impact of generational gaps among these three groups—commanders, recruiters, and the recruited—has not been investigated. It needs to be.
Accurately diagnosing the challenges we face also requires examining factors not previously analyzed, including contemporary social developments that may impact the military-eligible population. For example, the social turmoil caused by the pandemic immediately impacted recruiting for every service. But the long-term, downstream effects of the pandemic are unclear.
• Will certain cohorts of today’s children have reduced capacity to serve when they become young adults, because of physical limitations brought on by exposure to the virus?
• Will they be prepared academically, given the significant educational disruptions?
• Will their trust in institutions falter based on their perceptions of institutional weaknesses during the pandemic?
While the mental, physical, and psychological effects of the pandemic will take years to understand, they may be manifesting in the military-eligible population today, and the joint force cannot wait years to act. It must find ways to meet these youth where they are, without lowering standards.
Public Trust and Confidence
Of all the factors affecting young Americans’ propensity to serve, the most alarming is the steady decline of public trust and confidence in the military. According to Gallup’s most recent Honesty and Ethics Survey, Americans’ confidence in military officers has declined to its lowest level since the survey began in 2001. Further, in just the past five years, ten percent fewer Americans believe military officers possess “high ethics.”2Why? Based on my observations and interactions with a broad swath of citizens, I believe there are several reasons, including:
• The character of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
• A growing perception of the politicization of the military and senior military leaders
• Reports of widespread sexual harassment and assault in the ranks
• A series of preventable mishaps across all the services that suggest a measure of professional incompetence
• Scandals and examples of poor leadership across the joint force
• A perception that the skills developed through military service are less relevant to private sector success than in the past
Having been in the NROTC program in the late 1970s, I am old enough to remember when military service was not seen in a positive light. I was commissioned less than a decade after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and a year after the failed hostage-rescue attempt in Iran—Desert One. While I was still a lieutenant, the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut shocked the world and undermined the public’s faith in the military’s uniformed and civilian leaders. Since those days, I have witnessed tremendous progress by all elements of the joint force in earning the trust of the American people. That trust is the critical ingredient to preserving the AVF. If parents do not believe the military will treat their sons and daughters with respect, or if they believe their children will be assaulted by fellow service members, those kids will not join. If coaches, teachers, religious leaders, and other influencers do not trust military leaders, or if they perceive the military as politically partisan, rather than an institution that rises above the political fray to defend the nation, recruiting will suffer.
If the services do not address this downward trajectory, the military will become increasingly sealed off from the rest of society. It will be forced to recruit even more aggressively from military families, which is an ever-decreasing slice of the population, and it may need to lower standards to ensure a large enough pool of recruits. These outcomes would be terrible for the military and the nation. The health of the force depends on cultivating and sustaining a special bond of trust and confidence between the military and the public. Building and maintaining that trust—taken for granted for three decades—is something all military leaders must prioritize. If that sounds like a weighty task, it is. Parents and their children have legitimate reasons to question the value of service. While there is no easy way to cultivate trust, remedying the systemic issues plaguing military recruiting demands addressing this trust gap.
Openness To Change
Today’s DoD-wide recruiting challenges are front and center among national security leaders, who are rightly concerned about the readiness of our military. There are no easy remedies, and the services should be ready and willing to explore new, novel approaches. There are a number of creative solutions being proposed by academics, military and civilian defense leaders, and members of Congress. Offered here is a short list of ideas and considerations—more proposals for reframing the discussion than ready-made solutions.
First, the military must better balance recruiting and retention efforts, putting more emphasis on retaining service members already trained and acclimated to the military lifestyle. Today’s recruiting crisis can just as easily be viewed as a retention crisis. Quite simply, if the services increased retention, they would require fewer new recruits. Given our persistent recruiting challenges, persuading service members and their families to accept the hardships of military life and remain in service is even more important than recruiting new members. Of course, doing so requires sustained attention and a renewed focus on meeting servicemember needs: providing high-quality barracks, family housing, and mess halls, adequate childcare facilities, and sufficient options for developmental dependent pediatric care, for example.
At the same time, there must be a broader perspective on joint force retention. Many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines leave service because they perceive a lack of career opportunities in their field or service. The vast majority seek new opportunities in the civilian sector, overlooking the diverse and varied opportunities that exist across the joint force. When talented servicemembers hang up their uniforms, they take their skills and experience with them, and both the service and joint force lose. We must do more to encourage service members to remain in uniform, regardless of the color of that uniform. This would mean, at a minimum, reducing barriers to interservice transfers and greater interservice coordination among recruiters.
Meeting personnel needs may also require changing how parts of the joint force operate. For example, if the force cannot generate and retain enough pilots (a chronic problem with no solution in sight), perhaps it is time to abandon warfighting concepts that rely on large numbers of manned aircraft. Taking a contrary position, if analysis indicates that manned aircraft are necessary in large numbers, then the joint force should pursue fresh approaches, aggressively and creatively shifting personnel and resources to meet pilot recruiting and retention goals. This might mean other branches, or even occupational specialties in other services, will need to adjust to lower staffing levels.
Aviation talent is a familiar example, but challenges are not limited to that area. Attracting the right talent for emerging technical fields that will play a major role on future battlefields is a wider challenge. For example, the joint force continues to struggle with attracting and retaining talent for cyberspace operations. A similar dynamic extends to artificial intelligence, with quantum computing not far behind. Being reactive in these areas will not generate battlefield advantages. Future recruiting and joint talent management approaches must integrate individuals with critical technical skills and provide creative solutions to keep their skills fresh. Further, the military must do more to highlight the technical opportunities that exist and the impact of that service. There are few employers who offer more exciting and meaningful work in technical fields than the U.S. military. The joint force must do more to ensure U.S. citizens identify the military as a premier destination for building and honing technical skills.
The assumptions that underpin specific recruiting goals, by career field or military occupational specialty (MOS), also require close examination. For example, each year the services recruit thousands of individuals to serve in administrative, financial, and other clerical roles. While this may reflect “how we have always done it,” this practice is out of step with the private sector, which has spent the past several decades automating traditional back-office functions, allowing employees to focus on more complex and value-added tasks. While there are significant differences between business use cases and military ones—an infantry battalion needs a higher degree of redundancy than a Walmart, for example—there is significant room for automating processes across headquarters. Greater automation and reexamined recruiting assumptions—across a range of MOSs—would enable the services to reduce recruiting targets for certain career fields and refocus on areas of higher need.
Many of the military’s recruiting challenges are chronic; some stretch back for years and a few even decades. The good news is that national security professionals have examined many aspects of these issues for years, too. The marketplace for talent must be considered in relation to the joint force. Efforts must be forward looking and include demographic trends and workplace changes. Congress must be a partner in this effort, educated appropriately to understand the resourcing needs. Members of Congress must also be partners in tackling these challenges, so they can clearly communicate the military’s recruitment needs—and opportunities—to their constituents.
Bold Changes Needed
This is a call to action. Current recruiting practices across the joint force are not producing adequate numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. Meeting recruiting goals will require the military to reevaluate and adjust its methods, not double down on existing approaches in hopes of achieving different results. Lowering standards is not the answer. Throwing increasingly large sums of money at the problem is unsustainable and has a record of failure. Across the joint force, recruiting efforts are suffering from what some have called “the relentless momentum of the status quo,” which can no longer be accepted.
Public trust and confidence in the military must be restored, and every American must understand the value of military service—to the nation as a whole and to the individuals who serve. That value must resonate with current and future young people and their parents.
Today’s military leaders must approach the future of the joint force with an open mind. As demographics and attitudes of the eligible population evolve, the military must find methods that work in harmony with today’s democratic society. It would be irresponsible to wait for the next war before making the reforms needed. Now is the time to act.
1. Gen X members were born between 1965 and 1980; Gen Y, 1981–1995; and Gen Z, 1996–2012.
2. Lydia Saad, “Military Brass, Judges Among Professions at New Image Lows,” Gallup, 12 January 2022.