The Sky is Not Falling: How Conventional Wisdom About the Recruiting Environment is Awry

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“The sky’s a-going to fall; I must go tell the king.” – from the English fairy tale Henny-Penny

I was once also convinced the sky was falling. In my former position as the chief of recruiting communications for the Army Reserve, I believed the military recruiting landscape was in dire straits because of declining interest in the military and the increasing ineligibility of America’s youth. Fearmongering over these issues had continually increased, and the Army’s failure to meet its 2018 recruiting goals was validation that the future was bleak. Headlines, leaders, and experts added to the nervousness, describing our current recruiting challenges as “staggering,” and a “looming national security crisis.” Others have claimed that today’s youth are “unhealthy and unprepared,” and their quality is “declining rapidly.” These reports appear to justify the pessimism over the future of the all-volunteer force.



But the sky is not falling. Indeed, while a large proportion of America’s youth are ineligible to join the military, this is no different than in the past, and year-to-year trends show encouraging signs. While obesity and mental health issues have increased over time, many other eligibility factors have improved significantly. Even the argument that today’s youth are less interested and less willing to serve in uniform falls apart under closer examination. The truth is, while Americans may wish more young adults were eligible and willing to join the military, the situation is not deteriorating. In fact, the military can afford to be more restrictive than in the past — and that’s a good thing.

Eligibility Crisis? Meh.

There are several main reasons that youth may be disqualified from serving, which fall into seven broad categories: weight, mental health, criminal convictions, drug use, dependents, aptitude, and medical issues. Pentagon data from 2017 states that 71 percent of youth are ineligible to join the military. This means that out of the approximately 34 million young adults between the ages of 17-24 (prime recruiting years), only about 10 million are even eligible to join. In order to meet the military’s needs, the four services must recruit 250-260,000 people from that 10 million to fill their active and reserve requirements. And of that 10 million, most are not interested in service, or prefer other options in education and the workforce.

While the 71 percent statistic is attention-grabbing, it isn’t a national crisis. Actually, it is an improvement from 2009, when the Pentagon and a comprehensive report stated 75 percent of 17-24 year olds were ineligible to serve. And at that time, we needed even more recruits — nearly 287,000 — to fulfill military requirements. Ineligibility has always been a concern. According to charts from a 1979 National War College study entitled U.S. Army Manpower Alternatives: The Decade Ahead, 41 percent of young Americans were ineligible to join. However, the recruitable pool included high school non-graduates, who are ineligible today. If one applied today’s standards then, the 1979 ineligibility rate would have been 53 percent. And before you think that 1979 was the halcyon year of recruiting, remember the active duty recruiting requirement alone was 370,527 from a national population over 100 million less than it is today. Today’s military is sustainable partially because it is much smaller.

While the top line news is encouraging, a look at year-to-year trends in terms of disqualifying issues is, admittedly, more mixed. Obesity is given more attention than any other disqualifying factor, and for good reason. It is a health problem that has exploded worldwide, more than tripling in America since the 1970s, and is the principal cause for the long-term increase in military ineligibility. But for all the doom and gloom over obesity, there are signs this problem has stabilized and may actually improve in the future. Despite a small recent rise in youth obesity, the percentage of high school-age children who are considered overweight has declined slightly since 2016 and is at the same level as it was in 2005. Obesity in 10-17-year-olds also declined slightly from 2016 to 2017-2018. The most encouraging sign, however, is among very young recipients of federal supplemental nutrition assistance, some of the most at risk American kids. Recent data shows a significant decline in their rates of obesity in recent years. While this does not present a comprehensive picture for the future, signs are encouraging that the growth of the epidemic has stalled.

Of the seven categories of ineligibility, mental health is the only one without any good news for the recruiting community. Suicidal ideations and major depressive episodes among youth nationwide increased significantly in 2018. The long-term trends, while not as dramatic, show an increase in diagnoses of various mental health issues, including attention disorders, anxiety, and depression. These increases, however, may reflect increased reporting of mental health issues and changing attitudes about the social stigma of diagnoses. These conditions commonly result in adolescents receiving attention disorder or anti-depressant medications that immediately disqualify them from service. Other disqualifying medical conditions, however, present no issues that are not directly related to other disqualifying categories (i.e., type 2 diabetes).

Drug use is often cited as a growing threat to recruiting as more states legalize marijuana, but the data presents an inconclusive picture. Use of other illicit drugs among youth, including opioids, heroin, and amphetamines, remains steady at historical lows, indicating the well-reported abuse of meth and opioids is likely more prevalent in older Americans. Marijuana use is a less opaque issue. Despite changes to medical and recreational use laws in dozens of states, marijuana use among 10th- and 12th-grade students nationally remained unchanged from 2013 to 2018. Colorado, the first state to approve marijuana use in 2013, has itself seen no increase in use among high school students. Use among young adults, however, has risen, especially among those not attending college. However, it is still early in America’s transformation on marijuana laws to draw definite conclusions, and this issue requires more study as to how much it affects military recruiting.

The remaining disqualifying factors have improved dramatically throughout the country. American youth are better educated than they have ever been. High school graduation rates have increased since 1985, and college attendance rates also rose since 2000 among all demographics, and especially among minorities. These increases in education, coupled with the decline in the total number of recruits needed, have enabled the military to become more restrictive. During the Cold War, when the military was much larger than it is today, high school dropouts were necessary to fill the ranks, whereas today, a diploma is nearly a requirement.

Diplomas are not the only aptitude hurdle. Applicants must also pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test to be eligible to serve. The test score is based on the average scores of all applicants and is “renormed” every several years to match changes in aptitude. Those who score poorly may be eliminated from potential service, although the individual forces are able to set their own standards. Eligibility on the test is based on how a potential recruit scores in relation to all applicants, so the percentage of ineligible scores is constant from year to year. In other words, there is neither an increase nor a decrease in the percentage of youth deemed ineligible because of this test.

A general decline in criminal convictions among youth is also a good news story for recruiters. Juvenile arrest rates in 2017 were significantly lower than any time between 1980 and 2010, and nearly a quarter of their 1996 high. A series of favorable factors, including economics, technology in policing, and even reduced lead levels, accompanied by the increased use of youth diversion programs nationwide, have combined to create this decrease.

Finally, young adults are less likely to have dependents today than in the past. Teen birth rates have declined dramatically since their statistical highs in 1991, a trend that is projected to continue for the foreseeable future. Young adults are also having children later than in the past, pushing the average age of both male and female first-time parents out of the prime military recruiting years. Reports attribute this rise in parents’ age to the availability of abortion and contraception, increased education, and economic factors such as job opportunities, housing prices, and the cost of child rearing.

Gen Z is Not the Problem

The second problem often cited by pessimistic reports has been Generation Z’s declining interest in military service. Once again, the situation has been continually misrepresented. Propensity to serve is measured monthly by the Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies program, and is defined as the percentage of young adults 17 to 24 that respond they either “definitely will” or “probably will” join the military in the next few years. It is also an inexact tool, and many who have argued about declining rates of interest in service have taken individual data points as fact, leading to potentially faulty conclusions.

With propensity data, trends are far more accurate than the individual data points. The program does not reveal its sample size, methods, or margin of error in its surveys, so we cannot tell how accurate any given monthly reading might be. Averaging the data over time with a trend line minimizes those errors and presents a more accurate picture of the “mood of society.” So, despite a continuously improving economy, demographic changes, and the rise of Gen Z, that trend line of overall propensity from 2008 through 2019 is horizontal and steady. If young adults are less willing to serve in the military over the past decade, it is not reflected in the only scientific measure of it.

Propensity is not a hard statistic, either. The Army’s recruiting requirements and performance prove that the true percentage of young adults willing to join is higher than the surveys say it is. When considering the total youth population, after the ineligible 71 percent is eliminated and propensity and entry testing are factored, the number of able and willing prospects remaining is less than the Army’s yearly recruiting requirements. So every year, the Army must recruit from the supposedly uninterested portion of the population to meet its needs. Once educated about what military service is like, many of those less-inclined youth ultimately choose to serve. The real challenge for recruiters is to find and connect with those marginally interested youth who may eventually change their minds.

So Why Did the Army Fail?

Much of the recent alarm has been due to the Army’s failure to meet its 2018 recruiting targets.  The chief reasons cited for its failure were the strong job market, increasing ineligibility, and lack of interest. This was the first failure by any service to meet its active duty recruiting goals since 2005, so the news the Army would fall significantly short was huge. In addition to giving senior military leaders an opportunity to shock Americans with the ineligibility rate and routine claims about the negative effects of the civil-military divide, news of the recruitment failure was also used as the canary in the coal mine for some to advocate reinstating the draft.

But all these reasons were not why the Army failed to meet its goals. After all, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force all succeeded in meeting their 2018 recruiting requirements. What did change was that the Army rapidly expanded its recruiting requirements without fundamental changes in marketing or its recruiting force. The Army’s active duty recruiting goals increased nearly 30 percent from 2016 to 2018, as seen in the table below, while at the same time, recruiters were limited in the hours they worked as part of a continued initiative to improve their quality of life and reduce stress. Such an increase was a stretch goal for Army recruiters, even when the Army reduced the goal by 3,500 enlistments when it became clear they would miss the initial 80,000 number. As a business strategy, demanding so much more from recruiters under these conditions was bound to fail. In contrast, the Navy had a similar increase in its requirements over the same three years, but nonetheless succeeded in achieving its mission by reorganizing its recruiting operations, completely overhauling its marketing campaign, moving from a mass media approach to a digital-centric one, and implementing new recruiting tactics in a number of underperforming cities across the country.

The Army did subsequently meet its 2019 recruiting target, claiming an overhauled approach and 700 more recruiters as the reasons for success. But upon closer examination, that success was achieved largely by lowering the bar to a level it could more comfortably hop over. The 2019 target was 8,500 less than the downward adjusted 2018 one, and even 500 less than 2017’s target. The Army did launch a new program to recruit in 22 underperforming cities, but in the end, this initiative and the additional recruiters actually enlisted nearly 1,800 less soldiers than in 2018.

Data from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. * The original Army mission for FY2018 was 80,000. That target was reduced 3,500 mid-year.

The Army has made real transformations that should improve its capabilities significantly for 2020 and beyond. The recent shake-up of the Army’s marketing office, change in the Army’s ad agency, the additional recruiters, a transformation to a digital strategy, and a new ad campaign launched on Veterans Day are welcome improvements. This may sound like much of the Army’s problems have been addressed, and there is no crisis here, but that’s exactly the point. These recent changes represent a truly “overhauled approach” that has the potential to enable the Army to find more and better recruits who may not have selected to serve in years past. Had such changes been implemented prior to 2018, the Army may still have failed to achieve its stretch mission, but it would undoubtedly have made an impact.

A More Honest Appraisal of Recruiting

The purpose of this article is not to trivialize the challenges recruiters face, nor to propose solutions on how to succeed in the future. Army recruiters in particular can only succeed if the Army’s marketing is convincing enough to get young adults who are unlikely to join the service interested enough to eventually call a recruiter. It is a hard job that requires a lot of thought and creativity, and success is not guaranteed. But the Army and those who advocate on its behalf need to be honest about the challenges recruiters face and not cause hysteria. Like Henny-Penny’s ill-fated companions, those who believe the panic open themselves up to being misled toward bad ideas and poor decisions.

Service in the military is and always has been an endeavor that most are unable or unwilling to pursue. The situation today is not dramatically different than it has been in the past. How the military markets, how it recruits, where it recruits, with how many it recruits, and how it adapts to societal changes are far more important to its future success. Recruiting is, and will remain, a tough business, but recruiters have the tools to succeed, and for all the reported clouds over the all-volunteer force, there is a silver lining.



Col. Matthew W. Lawrence is a public affairs officer and senior Army Reserve advisor to the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: New Jersey National Guard (Photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)