Facing falling enlistment numbers, the U.S. Army takes a new approach to recruitment: Mom and Dad

February 20, 2020, 5:25 PM UTC
U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, deploy from Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina on January 1, 2020.

Gone are the days when the United States Army plastered airwaves with recruitment ads featuring images of young men parachuting out of planes, fording streams, and jogging across barren fields over the sober horns of Mark Isham’s “Army Strong.”

Today’s Army is taking a different approach: They’re going after Mom and Dad.

A series of new television recruitment ads feature mothers and fathers in war settings, trying to persuade their children not to join the Army. 

In one ad, titled “Warfighter,” a mother approaches her son who is decked out in a ghillie suit and aiming a gun. The mother, who’s wearing a nightgown and housecoat, implores the young man to come back home.

“Michael,” she begs. “You can do anything you want. Why this?”

Michael stays strong. He tells his mom that he doesn’t want to be stuck behind a desk.

Still, she worries. Finally, the music swells, and Mom comes around. The pair are transported back home to their porch, where they engage in indistinguishable chatter.

“Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” reads the screen as we hear Mom giggle. 

Another ad, “Fire Team,” features a mother following her son as he raids a building in a far off country, gun pointed.

“Do you really want to go through with this?” she asks her son before he kicks down the door to a room, ready to shoot.

This new approach comes after the military missed its 2018 recruitment goals. The slipup was the first since 2005 (at the height of the Iraq war).

The military subsequently scaled back its recruitment goals by 50% for the next few years, saying it was focusing on the bigger picture.

But the underperformance came as the Pentagon was handed $700 billion by Congress, the largest military budget in U.S. history—indicating that this isn’t a problem that can be solved with money alone.

In 2018, when the military realized it would come up about 6,500 people short of its recruitment goal of 76,500 (already lowered from 80,000), it sunk an additional $200 million into its efforts. The extra money didn’t work.

While critics have pointed many a finger to explain the decline (see: low unemployment rates and a growing economy), the Department of Defense has targeted another issue: a lack of propensity to serve. 

The media market is oversaturated, say representatives from the Department of Defense, and it’s difficult to fight for the attention of young people.

The share of young people left to fight for is also shrinking. A recent study by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command found that only about 1% of the Army’s prime demographic are actually willing to join. Even if they wanted to join up, less than 30% of all American youth meet the physical standards required to serve because of medical conditions, obesity, and other disqualifiers.

In 2018, the military issued waivers to recruit about 7,600 people who did not qualify under current guidelines. About 2% of new recruits scored between the 10th and 31st percentile in the Army aptitude test.

A slow decline

Interest in military service has been declining since conscription—or compulsory enrollment, commonly known as the draft—officially ended in 1973, but it’s reached its apex with the current generation of potential military recruits, the first to come of age with no direct familial ties to a conscripted force. 

After the post-Vietnam crossover from a drafted to a professional army, the part of the population engaged in military service began to decline, says Capt. James Long, a reserve Army infantry officer and innovation fellow. 

Now, the military relies on self-selection, says Long.

“There’s this large trend we’ve seen in the last couple of decades where the likelihood of someone in the military following in a parent or family member’s footsteps is pretty high,” he says. “The consequence of that has been less of a broad-ranging appeal to demographics that are increasingly important.”

Young people certainly understand the risks of military service—injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and long deployments—says Katherine Helland, director of Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies (JAMRS) at the Department of Defense. But, she says, they fail to recognize the value propositions and benefits that the military has to offer.

All it takes is getting them to listen. “We do find that getting that information to the youth market does have an impact,” she says.  

Hence the parental outreach. 

In the 1990s, about 40% of the youth market had parents who served in the military; that number is now down to 15%. “We don’t have those intimate connections to military service anymore,” she says. 

Recent data gathered by JAMRS found that only 32% of mothers and 39% of fathers would recommend service to their son or daughter. The numbers were much lower when there was no history of military service in the family.

The Pentagon says that the campaign to educate parents, whom they refer to as influencers, about service life is now essential to the future of military recruitment.

Without the right information at hand, says Stephanie Miller, director of accession policy at the DOD, parents are often surprised, concerned, and unsure of how to proceed. Often, they just shut down the conversation. 

“If we’re not able to reverse these trends that we’re seeing, this disconnect in the market, what is it going to look like when today’s youth become the parents and today’s parents become the grandparents?” asks Helland. “Who will our next generation of youth turn to, to truly understand all of the benefits of military service?”

But the problems with the declining propensity to serve may come to a head way before the next generation of potential recruits are born. 

Here comes Iran 

A ground war with Iran, while unlikely, isn’t quite as dubious as it once was—at least not since President Donald Trump ordered the death of Iran’s top general, Qassim Suleimani, in January, prompting a retaliatory Iranian missile attack, which left at least 109 people injured. Trump and colleagues like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seem to have no qualms about publicly and regularly threatening Tehran, either.

Last week, the Senate voted in favor of a resolution that aimed to block Trump from any further military hostilities toward Iran. The bill, crafted by Tim Kaine (D-Va.), would require Trump to end all military action in the country within 30 days. The measure will soon go to the House, where it’s expected to pass without a problem.

But Trump has indicated that he will veto any such resolution, and Congress does not appear to have the two-thirds vote required by each chamber to overturn such a veto.

Officials have indicated that they’re trying to avoid conflict, but the prospect of another prolonged engagement in the Middle East may be enough to turn away potential recruits, just when the military needs them most. 

“War in the Middle East is certainly something we have to be cognizant of, and part of the challenge of that longer presence at war is the misperception of negative consequences,” says Miller.  

Iran, a country of more than 80 million people with a wide range of missiles and a force of about 550,000 active personnel, “would require military resources far beyond those we employed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, director of the Patriots program at Ohio Dominican University. “A war with Iran would be a disaster.” 

The military simply doesn’t have the manpower to face Iran while keeping other troops around the globe and in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says. 

Meeting recruits halfway 

In the early 2000s, about 90% of households had phone lines. Today, that number is closer to 40%. The television set, much like the home phone, has also fallen out of vogue. Just 50% of young people watch traditional sources of TV, according to Pentagon data.

That means traditional cold calls and attention-grabbing ads are no longer enough to grip young people’s attention. So, the military is adapting. 

“The market is becoming harder and harder and more saturated, so we have to try to meet them where they are,” says Miller. “We’re doing more work in virtual recruiting, and we’re trying to have a stronger presence on social media platforms where people can have a chatroom and live presence with their recruiter.” 

They’re also tapping social media influencers to help boost perception. The Marine Corps recently invited YouTube stars to participate in basic training camp and make videos about their experience. The Navy challenged YouTube stars to shadow sailors and then face off to see who could do a specific job best, kind of like the military equivalent of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown

CrossFit competitions and e-sports events have also been particularly fruitful for recruitment efforts. The Army and Navy have both established their own e-gaming teams. 

“You see this movement away from NASCAR to more of a presence at CrossFit and extreme sporting events. Those are the areas where we see people engaging who meet our standards,” says Miller. 

But the ROI from their efforts has not yet been established, and the DOD is still analyzing new data. 

Often the recruiters attend these events knowing that they won’t even generate one lead, says Helland. Instead, they’re focused on the long game.

“What we’re trying to do is shift the market in a larger, longer-term way to address this issue of the disconnect,” she says. “We may not get a lead tomorrow, but next year we may.”


Long-term planning doesn’t relieve the current deficit, and the present-day enlisting process is still quite arduous.

It takes between four and six months to enroll the average recruit, with more wait time before they’re shipped off to basic training. 

“Right now, there’s a guy who’s served for three years, he comes back and knows every high school in the area,” says Gil Barndollar, the military fellow-in-residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. “He talks to 100 kids, and out of those, 25 call him back. Then, out of those, eight are serious. Then he drills that down and ends up with four recruits. You throw a lot of resources at the problem.”

The recruitment and retention of manpower are also tremendously expensive tasks.

The Department of Defense currently spends about 60% of its entire budget on manpower, and those costs are up about 50% in real terms since 2001, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The defense research group found that if spending increases along the same trajectory, it will eat up the entire Pentagon budget by 2039. 

“The all-volunteer force is a misnomer. This isn’t the Rough Riders in 1898 with people stepping forward out of patriotism. They are recruited in a competitive labor market,” says Barndollar. “You can throw money at the problem, but we still have gaping holes in a lot of places.”

Recruitment officers will often sweeten the deal with a signing bonus, and those bonuses can be as high as $40,000. 

There are about 10,900 paid recruiters around the country. Those recruiters, says Laich, “should be in the force training and leading soldiers. It’s an awfully expensive proposition that adversely impacts readiness and capability of the military as a whole.”

On average, each recruiter brings in one enlistee every seven weeks, which Laich calls inefficient and expensive. 

All volunteer? 

But if you ask Laich, the all-volunteer model is long for this country anyway.

Ultimately the Department of Defense will be forced to return to conscription, he says. “We say that it’s an all-volunteer force, but we’re paying huge sums of money to induce people to join.”

In 2018, the Army paid more than $400 million in enlistment bonuses and nearly that much last year. The vast amount of money it takes to sign up recruits, says Laich, raises the question: “If it’s an all-volunteer force, why do you have to pay somebody to volunteer?”

An all-volunteer force, according to Laich, reduces both the quality and quantity of recruits, especially as propensity to serve declines.

“Let’s face it, National Merit Scholars who would make great enlisted intel analysts or cyber-warriors don’t consider joining the military,” he says. “All-state linebackers who would make great infantrymen don’t consider joining the military. So we have a situation where no one has skin in the game, and what we do is prey on the lower socioeconomic classes.”

Department of Defense data found that the largest percentage of new Army recruits, 22.5%, come from households with $40,116 to $51,363 in annual income. Just 14.3% of recruits come from households that bring in more than $84,195.

About 43% of men and 56% of women are either Hispanic or a racial minority, more than their civilian labor force percentage. 

“With a volunteer force, you’re always going to be competing in the marketplace,” says Barndollar, who also advocates for conscription. “If this were the type of country where the military was venerated above all else, that could be very powerful. But we’re not that country. We’ve got this unhealthy and maybe even toxic relationship with our military now.”

The all-volunteer force has won only one war (the Gulf War) since 1973, says Laich, whereas the conscripted army only lost one, Vietnam.

“Where’s the winning?” he asks. 

Embracing the gig economy

Another and perhaps more plausible option is a change to the way the military searches for new recruits. Instead of playing a numbers game, says Captain Long, it may be better to recruit more mindfully. 

“Having 10,000 riflemen may be less effective for your individual objectives than having 10 truly great hackers,” he says.

As wars become more technologically complicated and battlefields become more hypothetical, the military will have a hard time recruiting the brainpower it needs away from tech companies and industries that can pay much more with significantly lower risks.

Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, Long suggests that it may be a better option for the DOD to rely on its reservists or to expand the way it utilizes private citizens. 

“There are deep and fundamental philosophical shifts that need to happen, that perhaps aren’t happening, at the speed needed to make change today,” he says. The future of the military, he says, should look a bit like the gig economy. 

“I would love to hear the conversation expand from ‘We need a draft’ to asking people how they can contribute in a broader sense,” Long says. “There’s immediate value if we break down the barriers to contribution and open it up to skilled people who want to help, but also want to continue building companies or working in the private sector.”

The military is actively working on embracing some of the innovations that Long suggests. They’ve created the Defense Innovation Board, manned with tech industry leaders like Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman. The group advises the Secretary of Defense on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the hiring and retention of I+STEM talent.

The Department of Defense has also been experimenting with pilot programs that include shorter, two- to three-year enlistment contracts.

But that doesn’t mean the military is ready to totally change its ways.

The shorter enlistments, notes Miller, come “with the expectation that once they have their foot in the door and they see how much we have to offer, that they’ll be more willing to commit to a longer-term contract.”

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