The Navy is scrambling for a life ring. From social media influencers to monetary incentives, leaders are trying multiple approaches to address recruiting shortfalls—yet projections suggest the Navy is not enlisting or commissioning enough talent to meet operational commitments. Already warships are sailing with undermanned crews and air wings are logging fewer flight hours. Without a sound strategy, numbers will continue to decline.
My final enlisted tour in the Marine Corps was as a recruiter. For more than two years I recruited quality applicants and always met my monthly quota. I never sent a recruit to boot camp who did not graduate, and I ended my tour with multiple recruiting awards. In between my time with the Marine Corps and my Navy commission, I worked for an executive search agency, where I recruited corporate leaders. My clients were selective corporations that worked under tight deadlines.
Based on my observations and experience, I believe the Navy is focusing on the wrong things when recruiting. No ad campaign, loan repayment, or extended recruiter workweek can consistently induce quality applicants to enlist or commission. Leaders instead should review recruiter training and empower these frontline sailors to present the Navy as the best career choice to their local schools and colleges.
This strategy will require the Navy to focus on mission and purpose—what makes the service distinct from corporations or other employment opportunities, why it offers a more meaningful vocation, and how subscribing to a greater cause can be better than pursuing another career. The Navy can start by removing the “Now Hiring” signs from its offices and advertising. To serve in the Navy is a privilege, not a transaction.
When a recruiter stands before a high school auditorium, the offer he or she extends should not be an offer at all. The recruiter should issue a challenge—to assume a role that is more difficult but more worthwhile than what these students can find anywhere else. No tricks or fads here, only opportunities for a select few.
After a group presentation, the next step is always a one-on-one meeting at which the recruiter explains how the Navy can meet the prospect’s goals. Where recruiters get off track, however, is in failing to align the applicant’s needs with the Navy’s solutions.
Usual selling points include technical training, pay, healthcare, and education benefits. A slightly better pitch might include travel or wearing the uniform. But these inducements are rarely much different from what a large company or even another military branch offers.
The Navy can set itself apart by training its recruiters to ask deeper questions and find more meaningful solutions. For example, when an applicant asks about college benefits, a good recruiter does not just provide a brief description of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but instead asks why college is important to the applicant. Additional open-ended questions can explore other motivations and uncover a prospect’s desire to find purpose or experience a more meaningful career.
Recruiters should be able to describe benefits that exceed the tangible. Examples of sailors delivering humanitarian aid, or exhibiting valor, or leading on the deckplates can show how the candidate can achieve his or her goals. The prospective sailor should leave the recruiter’s office with a full understanding of a Navy career’s unique challenges and opportunities. Educational benefits (something offered by every other service) become secondary to the Navy’s intangible rewards.
The Navy is not a corporation, and it cannot recruit like one. The service exists to support the cause of freedom and protect U.S. interests abroad. A first step in boosting recruiting is to ensure every recruiter understands and is prepared to show prospects why a Navy career is more than just another job offer.