Military recruitment lags despite reduced targets, record incentives to boost interest
The military touts a "recruit’s market" that should attract fresh blood into its ranks as each branch faces recruiting shortfalls following the coronavirus pandemic.
"In real estate, you talk about buyer's and seller's markets," Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, told Fox News Digital. "You know, this is a recruiting market right now. There are good opportunities to serve and good incentives to do so."
The military faced a drop-off in recruitment during the pandemic: Each branch met active component goals, but reserve numbers have fallen short each year. That shortage has now hit the Active component goals for the Army and Navy, with other branches just meeting their goals.
One significant factor that Thomas highlighted is the lack of engagement the military could pursue while schools remained remote in 2020 during nationwide lockdowns: A 2018 report by the Institute for Defense Analyses heavily focused on recruitment at the high school level, indicating the high value placed on that pipeline.
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"Really in the long term … it's declining eligibility, declining propensity or interest in serving and declining trust in government," Thomas said.
"Today, 77% of American youth aged 17 to 24 will not qualify to serve the United States military without a waiver, 77%," he continued. "That's based on a variety of different reasons, from weight to medical issues to academic issues to behavioral issues, mental health issues. It's a wide variety with 77% don't qualify without a waiver."
And Thomas admitted that the perception around the military withdrawal from Afghanistan may have impacted recruitment in the last six months, but stressed that he would not consider it "one of the primary drivers."
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The drop-off forced the military to reduce their goals, which they were able to do thanks to higher-than-usual retention.
"Back in 2020 and '21, we did reduce our recruiting goals slightly because retention was high," Thomas said. "We have not seen that in wanting to."
"What we saw when COVID hit, we had record high retention in the Air Force and I believe across the body," Thomas explained. "You know, frankly, it just wasn't a great time to transition out into the civil sector to be looking for a job. With all the uncertainty both in the market and people's personal lives with COVID, retention was high."
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Thomas argued that the job market continues to play a major factor in the recruitment equation. With the nation facing its highest level of employment in 50 years, the military faces "fierce" competition with the general job market. The rate of unemployment spiked early in the pandemic but has since then returned to around 3.5%
"It's good for the nation in general," he said. "It makes the battle for talent all that much more ferocious."
To try and compete with that healthy market, the military has offered larger-than-usual bonuses, including up to $50,000 for certain fields, such as special warfare. Other fields for "hard to fill jobs" have incentives ranging from $3000 to $6000. The main goal is to keep trying to attract the best of the best, including varsity athletes, candidates with multiple language proficiency or candidates with expertise in niche fields including crypto.
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Part of the problem may be due to the lack of understanding when it comes to the kinds of roles available in the military. In just the Air Force alone, Thomas noted that there are "about 130 enlisted career fields."
"Almost anything you can do in a major city, maybe other than being a stockbroker, you know, or a few select jobs you can pretty much do in the Air Force," he explained. "So all of the peripherals that we recruit for, we're recruiting for medical, for radiology technicians, for dental technicians … you name it."