One of These Things is Not Like the Others: Increasing Diversity Through Recruiting

Recruit Training Command

There’s a Pixar short that features an adorable pink ball of yarn, Purl, arriving for her first day of work at a corporate job. All the employees look the same (and vastly different than Purl). To fit in, she arranges herself into a modest business suit and changes her personality. While cute, the short reflects a couple common themes across industries: the importance of diversity in the workplace and the failure to properly onboard a new employee, particularly one who doesn’t look like everyone else. These themes are no less relevant — or urgent — in the military.

A diverse force ensures the flexibility and creativity in thinking required to counter 21st-century threats. Representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the military has grown steadily in recent decades, and the demographics of the services now more closely mirror those of the country. But there is still work to be done. Improvement lies in directing recruitment to underrepresented parts of the country and dedicating outreach to first-generation military members.

Panelists at hearings for the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) — a temporary federal agency chartered by Congress to consider methods to increase participation in military, national, and public service — reached similar conclusions in 2019. In discussing current demographic trends, Dr. Lindsay P. Cohn, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, shared the specific recommendation to increase recruiter presence in “low-yield areas to increase visibility and improve overall force representativeness.”

A significant limiting factor on diversity is the reality that the military is becoming a family business. A significant percentage of new military recruits come from families where one or more members have served in uniform. For example, a 2013 Pentagon report of recruits shows that 82 percent of new sailors had a close relative (defined as a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or cousin) who had served. Further, white recruits were most likely to have a family member who had served in the military. This naturally limits diverse representation, both in terms of demographics and experience.

Focusing on Lesser-Recruited Parts of the Country and First-Generation Service

Part of the reason for this family legacy of service is a concentration of recruitment from certain parts of the country. The majority of recruitment for the military has historically occurred in the South and near military bases in particular. This concentration threatens the ability to recruit diverse recruits. Reaching beyond the traditional geographic areas of recruitment, which disproportionately represent military families, can help to fix this.

To that end, Beth Asch’s 2019 RAND research looking at Army efforts reveals helpful insight into diversifying recruitment. The findings demonstrate that individual recruiter characteristics, including race, are linked with significant increases in recruiter productivity. Additionally, recruiters assigned to their home state are more effective. The natural recommendation is then that recruitment can be improved by ensuring recruiters better reflect differences in recruiting markets. Recruiters who are “similar to the population [where they’re trying to recruit] are more successful, perhaps because potential enlistees are more likely to identify with recruiters with similar characteristics.”

Simply put, more effective recruitment will occur when potential recruits feel they’re reflected in the force, whether that’s a recruiter having the same race as them or coming from where they are from. This research highlights the benefit of expanding outreach and recruiting in varied geographic areas.

Diversity lies in underrepresented parts of the country, and, relatedly, it begins with bringing in more first-generation servicemembers. Focusing recruitment toward first-generation young people will create new pipelines to service, perpetuating the importance of legacy with more diverse types of families. A family legacy of military service is an asset to the force, but diverse legacies are just as important.

Recruiting first-generation servicemembers should begin in areas without a significant military footprint. There is a misperception that a disproportionate number of military recruits come from urban areas. However, these urban areas are actually the most underrepresented parts of the country among new recruits. Recruitment focused on these big cities that have previously been overlooked in military recruiting would improve the demographic diversity of the services. But it would also improve the diversity in experience that recruits bring. Because these areas don’t have significant military representation, there is great potential to bring in first-time recruits without a military background. It should be noted that these areas are more likely to have an information deficit when it comes to what service entails because there aren’t significant numbers of veterans in the community. There is opportunity here, though.

In 2019, the U.S. Army conducted outreach targeted at these types of underrepresented urban areas. The efforts were successful, and the Army met its recruiting goal that year, with cities seeing an average of a 15 percent increase in enlistment numbers. The military overall can achieve the same by redoubling efforts in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for example. While the Army focused on these areas to boost the service’s overall recruitment numbers, the services can pursue this approach to improve the diversity of the force.

What This Recruitment Looks Like

Encouraging recruitment from underrepresented areas brings its own challenges. In big metropolitan areas in the Northeast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast, where recruitment is traditionally less represented, young people are less likely to have a parent, teacher, or other respected adult who served in the military. This type of personal connection is often a major contributing factor when young people decide to join. As a result, recruiting first-generation recruits is, admittedly, more challenging than recruiting individuals who are familiar with the realities of military life. Recruiters may be working against a lack of information, at best, or misinformation, at worst. For this reason, successfully recruiting in non-traditional areas will look markedly different. These young people may have no association with the military beyond what they see on TV or in video games. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. Taking the extra work to inform, educate, and inspire these young people to join represents an important first step to increasing diversity.

The key to success in this type of outreach is closing the gap in information and countering stereotypes and misperceptions regarding what it means to serve. To aid in recruitment, the services should establish day-in-the-life features and profiles of first-generation servicemembers. It can’t be overstated how powerful it is to have someone who looks like you as a motivator to serve. This doesn’t just have to be someone of the same race or ethnicity. It can be just as powerful to have someone from your city or with your background of a non-military family show you that service is possible — and what it looks like.

These profiles and features should also highlight the wide variety of jobs the military has to offer. This would counter the misconception (particularly prominent in communities without knowledge of, or exposure to, service) that the military is limited to combat roles. By highlighting various professions, from human resources to law to medicine to logistics, this type of recruiting can show the diversity in work available across the armed forces and can overcome preconceived notions of service.

The outreach would highlight, of course, the positive results of serving, but, most importantly, they would be candid in the hurdles and challenges each servicemember overcame. Honestly capturing all aspects of what it means to serve is an impactful way to make service relatable. It also humanizes the experience, which is especially important in recruiting those who don’t have the personal connection of coming from a military family.

While recruiting first-generation individuals requires a targeted approach, it can be incorporated with existing efforts and campaigns. For example, the Navy’s Instagram account, @usnavy_atthehelm, is an ideal platform to highlight first-generation service. The account already features “takeovers,” where sailors take over the account for a few days to share their personal experiences in the fleet. Using this account to spotlight someone who doesn’t come from a military family, and having them share what that experience is like, what they overcame, and what Navy life is like for them would provide a powerful perspective and help introduce more diverse recruiting.

There is also promise in efforts the Department of Defense has already enacted to improve diversity in service. Secretary Lloyd Austin III has made it clear, in speech and in deed, that diversity in the military is a top priority.

In a newly created role, Bishop Garrison serves as the senior advisor to the secretary of defense for human capital and diversity, equity, and inclusion. In this capacity, he is the first aide to directly advise the defense secretary on issues of diversity in the military. While the Defense Department already has an office for diversity, equity, and inclusion, having a top official with direct access to the secretary handling these issues signals their special prominence in the Pentagon.

In terms of actions to promote diversity and inclusion, Austin has examined extremist activity and revoked a ban on diversity training for the military. Garrison leads the Countering Extremism Working Group and is charged with implementing recommendations that stem from the group. The department is actively embracing ideas like inclusion and adopting efforts to recruit and retain women and people of color. These efforts are noteworthy and are a promising start to the direction the department is taking and what new recruits can expect. However, targeted efforts at diversifying recruitment are an important and necessary complement.

Meeting Diversity Recruiting with Inclusion Efforts

As Cohn expressed in her 2019 testimony to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, “the growing diversity of the population … will require military culture to adapt, and military advertising to make a conscious effort to convince a wider variety of people that they can, indeed, belong in the armed forces.”

This statement represents a key element to not just increasing diversity and representation but maintaining it: the idea that one belongs. The work doesn’t stop with improving diversity. Inclusion is the complementary requirement that ensures that, as diversity is achieved, it is also valued, used, and appreciated. Part of that comes from ensuring diversity is represented at the highest ranks of leadership. This signals that the services value all contributions.

Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks — then-senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — pointed out in her testimony to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, the “lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity at the senior-most levels of the military all run counter to generational views on society and work.” She referenced a recent poll, in which Generation Z respondents cited equality as the top cause they wished to see their employers support:

Given that almost half of the Generation Z population will be racial minorities, currently underrepresented at the highest levels of the institution [the military] … a good deal of otherwise inclined talent may choose alternatives to a military life that seems out of step with their own values.

Notably, Hicks is currently serving as deputy secretary of defense, which brings the very recognition she cites to prominence in the Department of Defense.

Certain structural issues make representation at the highest ranks difficult. For example, the military’s preference for senior leaders with certain backgrounds, such as combat arms roles, combined with the reality that many people of color in the officer corps serve in combat service and service support specialties, such as logistics and transportation, leads to decreased promotion representation at the senior ranks.

The Defense Department recognizes the need for representation and, in a memorandum for senior Pentagon leadership on “Actions to Improve Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S. Military,” has called for increased transparency of promotion selections and career opportunities in order to reinforce the Department of Defense’s focus on achieving equity across all grades. It charges military departments to “update relevant policies to establish procedures for the internal release … of aggregated demographic and other contextual data concerning promotion selection board results” by Dec. 15, 2021. Action begins with awareness, so this step is a promising one.

While the Department of Defense is actively implementing diverse recruiting efforts, what’s imperative is ensuring that individuals feel like they belong once they have been recruited. Inclusion is a key part of helping to ensure that diverse servicemembers stay in the military and continue to promote to senior ranks. Achieving this type of inclusion should start early and can be accomplished by mirroring what takes place on college campuses for first-generation college students. These students often have a network or community when they arrive on campus. There are student-run groups, for example, dedicated to ensuring the campuses are inclusive. They ensure that these diverse, unique perspectives first-generation students bring are valued and that their specific experiences are honored as they join a new community. The military services can recreate this approach in their mentoring. Mentoring sets up support so they can thrive in service, feel a part of the mission, and ultimately serve as new recruiting models for their communities.

Research of formal mentoring in the military has shown that women and minority respondents are mentored at rates equivalent to men and majority-group members. However, when mentoring occurs, it is often because a senior person initiates the relationship, likely due to the hierarchical nature of military culture. This reality should be considered particularly in mentoring of first-generation recruits, and special attention should be given to ensuring those mentoring have the requisite characteristics (i.e., an outgoing personality) to connect with mentees.

Establishing first-generation servicemembers as mentors who can share their experiences with new recruits is a powerful way to promote inclusion. Pairing up these individuals with experienced servicemembers who have been in their shoes will help create an inclusive environment. It wouldn’t need to be overly formal or structured, but simply a way to establish connections so these new, unique perspectives are recognized for the value they bring to the force.

An inclusive military is one that includes people from all walks of life but that also values them for the perspective their experiences provide. An inclusive service looks beyond demographic details as representing diversity and recognizes that where people come from and what they are exposed to shapes them and makes them unique.

Inclusion is the vital next step to ensure efforts to increase diversity aren’t done in vain. It also begets future recruitment of diversity. By showing itself to be culturally inclusive, the military can further attract the right mix of people to serve.

Dr. Jacquelyn Schneider of the Hoover Institution has described how relying on mission as a motivator for supporting recruitment is not enough: “Instead, defense leaders need to evaluate what cultural barriers may exist that keep top talent from joining the military.By continuing the current approach of recruitment, the services will continue to draw the majority of recruits from the same parts of the country and overwhelmingly from military families — and, ultimately, with increasingly similar backgrounds.

Improving diversity requires changing the approach and recognizing areas of opportunity. Diversity of recruitment will lend itself to a more diverse service in terms of demographics but also in terms of experience. These diverse experiences open up new ways of seeing and solving problems. There is incredible value in a more representative force. Achieving this starts with creating new inroads to service for first-generation recruits and supporting them once they join the military.

Marissa Cruz Lemar is a writer, communications consultant, and Navy public affairs officer. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Insider, and Task & Purpose, among other outlets. The views presented here are hers alone and don’t represent those of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense. Follow Marissa on Twitter @mcruzmissile.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Spencer Fling