Attrition: A Failure To Communicate


December 7, 2020: The U.S. Army got a sharp reminder in 2018 that its recruiters were going after a new generation (Gen Z) of recruits who were easier to reach via devices (cellphones or PCs) than in-person visits from recruiters. In 2018 the army failed (by 6.000 recruits) to meet its recruiting goals for the first year since 2005. The cause was a failure to communicate.

Army recruiting officials had been warned by their marketing experts and some recruiters that the current generation was difficult to reach using the traditional in-person methods. For the 2019 recruiting year recruiters were given quick training and advice on how best to make contact with Gen Z men and women. Most of the recruiters were older and not Gen Z, but knew their way around networked devices and social media. Recruiters were ready in early 2020.

The 2018 goal was 76,500 new recruits. The fiscal year ends on September 30 and after 2017 the army was forced to examine how was going about its recruiting. Changes were made and the army exceeded its recruiting goal in fiscal 2019. Then came 2020. The “recruiting season” begins in March, as high school seniors get serious about post-graduation plans. In 2019 recruiters used more remote methods and a lot more apps like TikTok and Zoom. The plan for 2020 was to use even more of the new methods and, when the covid19 quarantines hit, the recruiters were ordered to do all their recruiting remotely with recruits only coming in for physical exams. The virus was not a major problem for the army because they recruit only the healthiest. Covid19, unlike the most severe strains of flu, such as the 1918, 1957 and 1968 ones, has little impact on healthy people but is most dangerous for the elderly and those with existing health problems. As a practical matter covid19 is much less dangerous for recruiting age men and women than any past influenza epidemic. But the army still had to keep the recruits from getting or spreading covid19 to those more vulnerable. All recruits were tested for covid19 and those with it were isolated long enough for the recruit was no longer able to spread it.

The turnaround was not miraculous. Upon close examination, the army discovered that the problems in 2018 were largely self-inflicted. There were a lot of other problems with how the army ran its recruiting operation and that’s where solutions were found. Another factor was that 2018 was a spike year, in which the need for recruits went up because of the large number of veteran soldiers retiring or not reenlisting. The army fell short by 7,000 recruits in 2018 and even though that boosted the need for 2019, the goal for 2019 was only 68,000. In 2018 the other three services (navy, air force and marines) required a total of 100,000 and all met their goal. In 2020 the army only needed 62,150 and when more acceptable candidates were available than needed recruiters had to be selective, and tell those who didn’t make the cut they would have a chance next year and their recruiter would stay in touch electronically.

The army had planned to eventually carry out the entire recruiting process electronically and the 2020 situation forced them to do that right away. The recruiters adapted because, if nothing else, they had more time to be with families than normally. Doing the entire process remotely eliminated all the travel time for recruiters and in 2020 they found out how great the travel burden was.

In 2019 the army raised its standards somewhat to take advantage of the fact that more young Americans could meet those standards. In past years there had been complaints that too many potential recruits were turned away for a number of shortcomings. That has changed and more potential recruits still can now meet the physical, mental, legal and psychological standards for military service. While obesity continues to be a major problem, more potential recruits have high school diplomas, fewer drug problems and no arrest records. Those are trends that existed in 2018 and earlier but have accelerated and with it the number percentage of young men and women who qualify to join.

In 2018 recruiters were ordered to work fewer hours, to address problems with recruiter burnout and complaints about higher divorce rates and other family problems because of the pressure put on recruiters to meet their goals. For 2019 those family-friendly rules remained but more NCOs were assigned to recruiting duty and recruiters were redeployed so that more were in areas that required more recruiter effort to meet goals. The army paid more attention to recruiter complaints about methods and made a number of other changes that reduced the workload while increasing the effectiveness of recruiter efforts. Many of these changes were overdue, especially because the other services were already more efficient and, in most recruiting centers recruiters from all services were present, so the army recruiters were finally able to operate as effectively as they had seen the other services doing.

The army also looked back at 2005, the last year goals were not met and found that times had changed and the reasons for shortfalls were different in 2018 compared to 2005, as were economic and political conditions. In 2005 unemployment rates were higher, although headed lower, and there was a lot of combat with lots of casualties. There were other differences. Back in 2005 the problem was getting recruits for non-combat jobs, not the infantry. The 2018 shortfall was mainly for infantry. In 2018 there was little combat and infantry are more likely to die in an off-duty auto accident than in combat. Back in 2006-7, the recruiting shortfall was quickly turned around so those annual goals (80,000 new recruits) were met. This was also the goal for 2008 as well as the army expanded to meet the demands of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Back then the army was growing from 482,000 to 547,000. In 2018 the expansion was from 476,000 to 500,000 by 2024.

Other differences are that in 2018-19 the army is a lot more selective, both in terms of new recruits and who is allowed to reenlist. Existing troops who fail to meet higher physical and deployability (ability to go overseas) standards are not allowed to stay in and have to be replaced with better qualified new recruits. Many of these are for non-combat jobs, which comprise nearly 90 percent of all soldiers. Because there is no longer an active war, a lot fewer qualified young men are enlisting to be in the infantry.

Back in 2005-7 the army recruiting effort was unprecedented for wartime. Never in American history has a war this long been sustained with only volunteers. Party politics and media concentration on that has prevented the story behind this from getting out much. There are several reasons for the army recruiting success since 2001. The principal ones are;

Patriotism. Many of the troops that joined up believed that the nation was at war and must be defended. Those who got to Iraq or Afghanistan saw for themselves why the wars are being fought. The best recruiting aid turned out to be recently recruited or discharged, soldiers. That's a story most media didn't want to cover because it contradicted so much else that was reported as news. But for army recruiters, this patriotism and word of mouth were key ingredients in recruiting success. With no war on it’s more difficult to get new recruits for combat jobs which tend to be strenuous and boring, although safer, in peacetime. This is a less attractive proposition for a lot of potential infantry recruits. In 2019 the recruiters put more emphasis on the good pay and benefits, especially the college tuition program for those who complete their four-year enlistment. In the army recruits get to try out career options they would not have had access to if they went straight to college or took whatever job was available. This pitch resonates because many college students right out of high school noted that the slightly older veterans had an easier time of it. This was a phenomenon first noticed after World War II when millions of recent veterans took advantage of the new GI Bill benefits and raised the maturity level of education for a generation of younger college students. The GI Bill was revived in the 1960s and the psychological and financial benefits for veterans in college are still there, even though fewer veterans are in each freshman class.

Low casualties. Although the media gets obsessed with U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reporting tends to ignore the fact that those casualties are the lowest in history, any army's history. Put simply, troops were half as likely to be killed or wounded in Iraq as they would have been in Vietnam or World War II. A combination of better equipment, training and leadership made it happen. These are trends that have been going on for decades. The lower casualties make a big difference, especially for troops who have gone back to Iraq or Afghanistan several times. Recruiters know that there's enough real danger there to attract young men looking for some adventure, but not so much that most potential recruits would be put off by it. "Extreme" (very dangerous) sports have become much more popular since the 1980s, and for many young men, modern combat is in that league plus you actually get to kill people. Most reporters have forgotten how teenage males think. The recruiters haven't, and the U.S. Marine Corps consistently exceeds its recruiting goals by emphasizing the danger and challenges. The end result is that it was more difficult to recruit for support jobs, than for the combat ones.

Bonuses. Taking a cue from the corporate world, the army increased its use of cash bonuses for people with key skills. Electronics and intelligence specialists were regularly among the best rewarded. Veteran infantry leaders got lots of the bonus money because recruiters for corporate security firms were making outrageous offers. While these bonuses were rarely used to attract new infantry recruits, the bonuses are still needed for recruits qualified to handle highly technical jobs, like those involving maintenance of electronic systems. Bonuses are not an immediate benefit for new recruits, but for those qualified to handle the most difficult jobs, bonuses are an attractive feature even if many of these specialist soldiers do not make a career of it.

Higher Re-enlistment Rates. As important as new recruits are, getting experienced soldiers to stay in is equally important. And in this department, the army has been very successful. Veteran troops in combat zones tend to re-enlist at a higher rate than those in safer areas. Although there's sometimes a tax angle to this, many veterans admit they re-enlist because there is a job to be done, and they are the only ones to do it. With the wars over more soldiers seek to take advantage of the GI Bill education benefits and get a less stressful civilian job. The army still needs a lot of soldiers who will re-enlist, to provide the NCOs and technical specialists that have become essential.

Better screening. For over half a century, the army has been working on better screening and training techniques for handling "substandard" recruits. This includes those who have too much fat, not enough education, or a troubled past. Although the army has only been accepting recruits who are considerably healthier, smarter and better educated than the average for their age since the 1980s, efforts to turn less well-qualified men and women into effective soldiers continued. Now those techniques are being used, although you'd never know it from the performance of the troops. Yet in the long-term lowering standards to meet recruiting goals did not work. The army screening is better at finding those among the seemingly less qualified who will turn out to be stable and productive over the long term. The problem is that this is mainly for non-combat jobs. The army has, since the 1990s, become known as a place for qualified people to learn useful civilian job skills while getting paid for it. Soldiers can get out after four years, get more subsidized education via the GI Bill and be eligible for a lot of good civilian jobs. That’s one reason the army still offers reenlistment bonuses to technically adept troops that are very expensive to train. During the 2018 recruitment crises, the army noted that the percentage of young Americans eligible to enlist was actually going up and is continuing to do so. So the army went looking for other problems in the recruiting process, found them and fixed them,

Ongoing Reforms. The army has, since the 1980s, been rolling out more and more reforms. Not just obvious things, like new weapons and uniforms, but new leadership and organizational methods. The result is better performance and morale. Troops are more likely to reenlist if they believe they are serving with the best, and being well treated. The army has had some problems with officer quality and those problems are still not solved. But when it comes to the troops, the army is in better shape than it has ever been. It was just that not enough attention was being paid to the problems with how recruiters were used.




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