In North Carolina and nationwide, the Army is struggling to recruit new soldiers
The military faces a recruiting crunch so bad that some are calling it the worst since the draft ended nearly half a century ago. The Pentagon could be tens of thousands of troops short by next year.
Even in North Carolina, perennially among the top five states for recruiting, local recruiters say they expect to fall about 30 percent short of their goal for the fiscal year that ends next month, and they say that’s typical for the service as a whole.
In other words, the Army needs a lot more Faith Thompsons.
The 22 year old aspiring combat medic walked in the Burlington, North Carolina recruiter’s office one recent afternoon. She was dropping off some paperwork ahead of shipping out next month.
Thompson, who works as an EMT and already has earned an associate degree, thought about enlisting ever since an encounter with recruiters at the State Fair when she was just six years old.
She seemed almost puzzled at the question of why someone her age wouldn’t consider the military.
“I think a lot of people don't know what the Army can offer,” she said. “You have your housing paid for, you get a lot of educational assistance, a lot of educational opportunities. Those who are eligible for bonuses, they get bonuses."
Thompson said her friends don’t get the appeal of serving. Some ask why she would want to sign her life away for four years .
“They say … you're not gonna have any freedom,” she said. “As far as them not wanting to go in, a lot of them are in relationships. They don't want to leave that. Or they're scared. I think it's a big change, and that's a lot to take in for a lot of people. And some people just don't want to put in the work."
Experts think that attitude – a shift away from the “work” part of the work-life balance – is one reason for the recruiting crunch. It's one of several issues the military shares with civilian employers, who in many cases also are struggling to find workers.
Recruiters have been fighting some long-term trends for decades. Rising obesity rates and other physical and mental issues have shrunk the pool of young Americans eligible to serve to just 23 percent.
Those long-term challenges remain. But now there are new obstacles.
Major General Kevin Vereen, who leads the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said the Army is offering incentives it never has before: Enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000. A $35,000 bonus for shipping out quickly. Even the option to choose where you’re first stationed.
“What was surprising to us was we were just not getting enough people to want to even take part and try to even receive the incentives,” Vereen said. “So we're like, okay, something else is wrong.”
A big part of that "something else," he said, is that fewer potential recruits are scoring well enough on the Armed Forces’ vocational aptitude test, apparently because high school academics suffered during the first years of the pandemic. And he said issues with weight and health are another major factor.
But all the causes of the recent drop off aren’t clear. Beth Asch, a senior economist with the Rand Corporation, has studied defense manpower issues for nearly forty years and said studies have long shown that when civilian unemployment is down, recruiting gets tough.
It is down now, but that’s far from the only problem for recruiters.
“There's some real changes going on in the economy that are emerging and are not well understood about what that means for the military,” she said.
Other potential causes, she said, include those shifting attitudes about work-life balance. One nuance is employment among men is down, and among those who are employed, the number of hours they work is down. In other words, they’re leaning toward more leisure time.
Data also show a loss in confidence in the military as an institution. And there's a trend the military has long cited – the growing social divide that’s left few civilians with a real sense of what military life is like.
Ashe said there’s not enough research yet to understand the complex tangle of issues. But there’s no shortage of opinions.
“My observation so far has been that there's a temptation to focus on everyone’s sort of pet argument.…like if you think this is about the military-civilian divide, you’ll talk about that,” she said. “You’ll talk about things like sexual harassment and those sorts of issues in the military."
"I think we need to take a holistic view on this and explore the entire spectrum of potential causes,” she said.
Conservative politicians and pundits have begun claiming part of the problem is “woke” military leaders putting too much emphasis on things like diversity and inclusion.
Vereen said he hasn’t heard that at all from the front-line recruiters he talks with constantly.
“It’s just rhetoric,” he said.
Asch said it’s one more thing on the list with no data to show whether it’s true or not. She said the military community, like the rest of the nation, has become more partisan. But the effects of that on recruiting are also unknown.
Meanwhile, the Army is reaching for new tools.
Earlier this summer, it decided to admit recruits who hadn’t completed high school or earned a GED, but quickly reversed course after getting pushback.
It is, though, creating a kind of pre-boot camp, with tutoring for those who need slightly higher test scores and help for those who need to drop a few pounds to qualify.
It will start with a pilot program of about 2,000 candidates at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Vereen said, and the Army hopes to expand it to other sites.
Beth Asch, the Rand economist, said the Army is mostly taking smart steps. And after watching recruiting ups and downs for decades, she's confident the Pentagon will get a better handle on what’s wrong and eventually get recruiting back on track.
“They'll throw a lot of resources at it,” she said. They'll adapt, they'll increase waivers, they'll do the kinds of steps they're taking.
“And so we'll solve it,” she said. “The question is, how much is it going to cost? How long is it going to take to get there?"
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.