What the hell is going on with United States military recruiting? Every single branch is having enormous difficulty in trying to find personnel, and officials believe that this is going to be a problem that persists well into the future. While there is, of course, much debate over why this is happening in 2022, the numbers so far underscore that recruiters out in the field are finding it harder than ever to find and persuade qualified young people to sign on the dotted line. Some of the struggle is historical, with old reliables like criminal records, obesity, and body modifications contributing to the struggle. But is there something else at work here? Before we get into some theories, let us take a look at some grim numbers.
How bad is it right now? NBC news reported that the US Army has so far met only a dismal 40% of its enlisted recruiting goals for fiscal year 2022, which ends on September 30. The commander of the United States Air Force Recruiting Service said “If we were a company, we would still be in the black, we would still be making a profit, but our profit margins and our available capital, those numbers are trending down right now.” Navy and Marine Corps recruiting claim they will meet their goals, but only barely, and that’s with a little sleight-of-hand dealing with programs like Delayed Entry. Space Force (can’t really type that yet without a chuckle) will probably be ok; then again, they are only trying to get about 500 people for the entire fiscal year. A shortfall of replacement troops is clearly a national security issue, and at a recent budget hearing, several members of Congress worriedly asked about the future of recruiting.
The first problem is simply a shrinking talent pool. As recently as 2017, the Pentagon was reporting that only 29% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 were even eligible to to serve. That sounds incredibly shocking, doesn’t it? What kind of physically sick society would get to the point where less than a third of their young population could even be QUALIFIED to sign on the dotted line? But if you think it could not possibly get much worse than that, buckle up: Last month, Army Chief of Staff General James McConville testified before Congress that in 2022, only 23% of young people are qualified to join without a waiver. That’s correct; less than one quarter of that young population. Further, only 9% of THAT already-miniscule pool of candidates expressed any interest in doing so, the lowest number in 15 years. To deal with the ongoing crisis, the military is trying their best to reach out to the kids, by trying a few, uh, interesting techniques. One of the less-than-well-received ideas was to drop the requirement of a recruit having a high school diploma or GED. The Army, after some furious backlash, quickly shelved the ideaafter about ten minutes; no doubt singed by the ridicule that spread on social media:
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Army grants waiver to allow candidates without a high school diploma or GED to enlist
“If a candidate is too low for your standards, then lower your standards” is terrible guidance instead of addressing the issue at root cause. https://t.co/ryreCEOTqQ
The general consensus seems to be that this problem will only get worse. Not only is active duty hurting, the Guard and Reserve aren’t doing much better. And in a case of horrible timing, now the long shadow of the Covid-19 vaccination wars have come into play. Back in August of 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III released a memo that mandated all US military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve troops, must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. (After some research, it remains unclear to me whether a booster shot will be required to be considered “fully vaccinated;” at least one branch says it will not; just the initial 2 shots.) Austin had left it up to the individual branches to impose their own deadlines, and the US Army had the latest deadline, which, for Army Reserve and National Guard, passed on June 30th, 2022, a fact that members of Congress did not let go unnoticed:
The Army Reserve and Army National Guard deadline imposed by @SecDef for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination is June 30th.
🧵THREAD on the effects of the military vaccine mandate so far:
Unfortunately for readiness, that deadline passed with around 40,000 personnel who are unvaccinated, and, on paper, could be released from their service immediately. Undoubtedly because of this ongoing recruiting crisis, the Army hasn’t cut them loose as of this writing. They have, however, now barred those personnel from participatingin their drill training, meaning the personnel can’t work and therefore won’t get paid. Will the loss of the paycheck convince these soldiers to abruptly change their minds? Personally, I don’t see it. If anyone has chosen to not receive a Covid vaccine by now, they probably never will. And after two years of social media wars, the vaccine has become highly contentious: One person can see the vaccine as either a helpful way to stave off serious illness or death, the other can see it as an untried, unproven injection that can cause serious side effects. (This is not an article on vaccine efficacy so please; SPARE ME the covid rants and your Fauci Ouchie memes.) That pretty much sucks for Guard and Reserve recruiters; your already-challenging job just got even more challenging. Basically the whole thing turned into a giant clusterfuck. But there are plenty of other issues hampering recruitment efforts, and many national security think tank pundits and IG meme accounts (the latter being far more credible) are rushing to identify them. And, as per SOP, I have some thoughts that I have almost no way to back up but let’s speculate!
Perhaps the easiest theory to start with is one that has plagued the military for years and is still a factor: Obesity rates. The rate of tubby kids is not just an national aesthetic problem, but has serious consequences for our future military. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the national obesity rate for young people is over 22% in ages 12 to 19 years of age. That’s bad enough; for adults who may want to join up in the Guard/Reserve, the statistics are even more gross: Try a whopping 42% of adults in 2020. The increase has been striking; in 1999, the rate was “only” 30%. Pretty hard to maintain high physical fitness standards or even be able to breath without me hearing it from across the room with such a high number of people who eat way too much and exercise way too little. The sad truth is that there seems to be little motivation to do anything about this. An article from UCLAback in 2011 admitted that 38% of California high school students do not participate in any time of school physical education. And even when there actually are PE classes, there are numerous questionsabout whether they are even worthwhile or not.
Side note: I believe there is a whole job market here for military SOF/Infantry veterans. Let’s increase the salaries of PE teachers and have them specifically recruit those veterans to start putting a hurting on these kids. I’m talking grass drills, kettlebells, deadlifts, mud pits, pools, calisthenics… the whole list of pain. Imagine just for a second me as your chubby kid’s PT teacher. I will turn your lil’ fluffer nutters into MACHINES. I will make them into the most jacked and tan kids ever. Their voices will be shot from screaming motivational slogans. You kids will beg for mercy from eight count bodybuilders. I will PT you all until you fucking die!
Another growing problem is the tattoo thing. Yes, I know the Army has recently relaxed their tattoo policyand allowed neck tattoos; undoubtedly because of the very recruiting crisis that we are undergoing. But damn, son… you kids need to chill out on the ink. Seriously, I know 22 year olds that are now fully sleeved on all four limbs. Kid, you don’t even know what kind of person you’re going to be yet, and you went and inscribed permanent body art on your whole body? In ten years, you’re going to be a completely different being and then that “NO RAGRETS” tattoo is going to look stupid as hell, and you’re stuck with it. At least get a little life experience before you cover yourself in tattoos of some lame ass band or something that won’t even exist in a few years. I know you think Pete Davidson and Machine Gun Kelly look like, so cool and junk, but please think twice about getting that hilarious thing your friend called you on the way home from getting blackout drunk at the club etched into your face.
Another issue is the advertising. Now, I know our new military really dislikes putting out ads that show people shooting awesome weapons, and blowing things up, and showing badass jets and boats, and HALO jumping, and getting jacked in the gym, and other cool stuff, but that SELLS. That is what millions of young men (and some women) ultimately want to experience when they join up. And until recently, there were some great ones. This was a cool ad for the US Army’s premier light infantry force, the US Army Rangers (although I still say they just use real-word helmet cam footage:)
As a matter of fact, our good friends at Task and Purpose talked about the advertising problem extensively in a recent article. See, we don’t have ad campaigns like that Ranger one anymore. Instead, current Army ads show people sitting around campfiresdiscussing their benefits and how much better they are than the poors in the civilian world. Others were even worse. The Army ad campaign, “The Calling” was so poorly received that the Army actually disabled comments on their youtube channel over it. You all remember one of the commercials from that classic campaign, right? Who could forget Emma and her two moms?
They were RUTHLESS with that one on IG. Speaking of “The Calling,” it brings me to another point. This is perhaps a bit contentious, but it is so widespread around social media that I don’t think it’s possible to ignore it. The theory is this: The military is too Woke. That is, the military is too busy engaging in proper pronoun use,drag shows on base, and dividing up people according to skin color that it has created a tension that is turning people off. I know a few progressive veterans, including LGBT and members of ethnic minority groups, and like the rest of us, they’re sick of all that crap as well. Additionally, because of my weekly podcast that is WIDELY shared in the active duty military world, I have the great honor of getting many messages from young people still serving. And they, too, have had enough. They’ve done their 4-8 years and they’re over it. So all of those Woke Vet #MilTwitter nerds that you see quoted in all of the Real Media poo-pooing this don’t have a clue; they lack both BK’s sources and intellectual firepower. These young people joined up to kill the enemies of America and break their shit, not have constant computer-based training on some lame “EQUITY” bullshit. In the case of special operations; they joined up to belong to an elite group, not be part of a formerly-elite group that advances quittersbecause they have the desired skin color and genitalia.
I have seen the Woke Theory vigorously denied by some, but I’ve also seen too many veterans bring it up to be ignored. And veterans bad mouthing the service, especially to their children, is an ominous sign. In 1995, 40% of the target range for recruitment had parents that were in the military; long a huge influence on whether a kid was going to join up or not. A recent Pentagon surveyhas that number down to a dismal 13%. Incidentally, another survey found that only 45% of Americans had a “great deal” of trust and confidence in the military; that is down a staggering 25 percentage points since 2018. Not a great signal that parents will urge their children to join up. I’m not sure what the ultimate cause is, but if you want to get a feeling for the current zeitgeist on a social issue, there’s no better place to turn to than Twitter… check out the almost 2,000 responses to this tweet:
Informal survey: Why do you think military recruitment is failing?
They aren’t all bots, folks. Honestly, it’s kind of depressing how many veterans I personally know who would never recommend their children join the military. To be sure, it’s not all wokeness and fatness and poor advertising. There are plenty of other factors in play here. The labor market is booming right now, and there are plenty of civilian jobs. The long war in Afghanistan has come to an end, while another, far more dangerous war is potentially looming ahead. The education system neglects teaching about government and military service in general, there aren’t enough recruiters, kids think guns are icky; the list goes on. If I was king, I would immediately move to institute mandatory three-hours-daily Weight Lifting/Calisthenics/Martial Arts/Weapons Training in every public school immediately; alas, I am not king.
I personally still believe in the upside. I have received tons of messages on my IG account asking me if it was worth it to join up, and I ALWAYS say yes. Whether you feel the call to test your mettle in special operations, or just want to learn a fantastic trade while getting paid, it’s still tough to beat the military for all of the highly professional training, knowledge, benefits, and seeing the world; all of that annoying #woke bullshit aside. But for real: the bottom line is that there is no doubt we are in a crisis of recruitment not seen since the end of the Vietnam war, and there seems to be no sign of abatement any time soon. Have ideas about how to fix it? Drop us a line in the comments.
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Chief Marketing Officer, VET Tv
Justin Szerletich an award-winning creative strategist, marketer, and U.S. Marine Corps Veteran. He is a former infantryman that deployed to Ramadi, Iraq and again on the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit serving throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Upon returning home from war, Justin worked for the government through 2017 when he began his own marketing agency. His company was acquired in 2020 and he now serves as VET Tv’s Chief Marketing Officer.
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