Wooing warriors: Struggling Army plans ‘sweeping’ changes to recruitment

Pentagon officials announced Tuesday a major overhaul in the military’s approach to enticing young Americans to enlist, moved to act after the Army once again fell thousands short of meeting its recruiting goal for the year.

On Tuesday, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth and Gen. Randy George, the chief of staff, detailed what was billed as “sweeping changes” to how the nation’s senior military service will identify and recruit new talent.

Among the first changes: replacing the officers on temporary assignment as recruiters with a new team of permanent, full-time “talent acquisition specialists.”

“The job market has changed very significantly in the last 20 years,” Ms. Wormuth said at a special Pentagon briefing. “The Army has not changed how we approach that job market while a lot of our competitors in the private sector have.”

The changers come as the Army and the other military services grapple with the most challenging recruiting environment since the end of the draft 50 years ago. In the fiscal year that just ended, the Army brought in about 55,000 recruits — 10,000 short of its target goal of 65,000.

“We knew, frankly, that it was going to be tough to make,” Secretary Wormuth told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. “But it was important. We needed to send a strong signal to both our recruiting workforce to ‘put the pedal to the metal’ and to show Congress and the public that we were going to push as hard as we can.”

Last year, the Army missed its goal of bringing in 60,000 soldiers by 15,000. It was clear months ago that upending the recruiting status quo would be required, Ms. Wormuth said.

“Just continuing to have the same approach but do it better and harder was not going to get us where we need to be,” she said.

In a tight overall U.S. job market, the Army, the largest of the country’s military services, is not alone in struggling to meet its needs. The Navy and the Air Force also fell short of their recruitment goals for the fiscal year that ended Saturday, although the heads of those services leaders said both did better than predictions earlier this year. The Marine Corps and the tiny Space Force met their enlistment targets, officials said.

While the Army missed its recruiting goal for the year, strong retention numbers helped the service maintain its total “end strength” of 452,000 soldiers. Recruiters signed up an additional 4,600 recruits for their delayed entry program, meaning they will go to basic training over the next year.

Learning from the private sector

The Army recently completed a wide-ranging study of the recruiting environment, crunching decades’ worth of data and learning what works for Fortune 500 companies.

Army leaders said some recruiting challenges are beyond their control, such as the demographic reality that there is a declining percentage of young people eligible to join the military. Some reforms can begin immediately while others could take years to complete.

There are currently about 8,000 Army recruiters. In most cases, they are assigned the duty on a temporary basis from their primary career field, such as an infantry soldier. The new corps of talent acquisition specialists will have one mission and one mission only — recruiting.

“One of the needs we identified was creating an increasingly permanent and specialized talent acquisition workforce,” said Gen. George, who called recruiting the service’s most pressing challenge. “This will ensure that our recruiters have the tools, talent and training to reach prospects wherever they are.”

The Army is also creating a permanent warrant officer position for recruiting. Both assignments will put the service in line with most major companies where personnel recruiting is a specialized, full-time career field.

Army recruiters have traditionally relied almost exclusively on high schools to fill the ranks, but that market is actually shrinking. Today, about half of their potential recruits are high school seniors or recent graduates. 

“By 2028, we’re going to get one-third of our new contracts every year from people who have more than a high school education,” Ms. Wormuth said. “But, we’re not abandoning the high school market by any means.”

Just setting up a card table in the gym won’t be enough for an Army recruiter to be successful. Ms. Wormuth said the service needs to start looking for potential applicants on computer job sites like LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter.

“Doing this is going to be a big shift. It’s going to take new training and new tools for our recruiters,” she said. “We want to make sure they have all the resources they need to be successful.”

The head of the Army recruiting will get a promotion to three-star lieutenant general and have a four-year tour of duty for more continuity. Army Recruiting Command will also take charge of the Army Enterprise Marketing Office — the Madison Avenue types who recently reintroduced the service’s venerable “Be All You Can Be” recruiting slogan — and the Cadet Command, which oversees training for Army ROTC.

“We know we have to be agile and we have to adjust – like the Army always does,” Gen. George said.

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