Marketing to and Enlisting the iGeneration
Plenty of ink has been spilled in the debate on whether the US Army has/is/will ‘bleed’ talent due to a supposed end of the “Long War” and its subsequent reduction in personnel strength. An arguably more important topic in the talent management genre is talent acquisition.
The Secretary of Defense has wasted no time in declaring personnel strength and getting the right people in the right position a priority. In his second month he has already made specific recommendations for upending the infamous military bureaucratic personnel system. It finally seems that an appetite and environment has developed for change. The question was recently posed of how to take the US Army up to a million soldiers in a short period of time. The far more urgent issue in need of serious strategy review is how to find the 60,000 Regular Army and 17,000 Reserve accessions needed this fiscal year. If you read much in current defense news you have probably heard the “70% of young people don’t qualify for military service” line bandied about. According to the commanding general of US Army Recruiting Command, that 30% qualified percentage will shrink to20% by the year 2020. These are immensely troubling stats about the available supply for a volunteer force because whether our best and brightest are leaving now or in twenty years the Army still need to replace them.
“A country possessing 12 millions of people ought surely be able to at all times to possess itself of an army of 6,000 men obtained upon principles of fare contract; if this can not be effected then it will be better to rely on some other means of defense, rather than resort to the expedient of obtaining a discontented and besotted soldiery.”
--Secretary of War John Eaton, 1830
The US Army Recruiting Command was given the mission of enlisting 60,000 Regular Army Soldiers and 17,300 Army Reserve Soldiers this fiscal year. This amount is not historically high, but it will be a struggle due to self-imposed factors such as stricter tattoo policies, and known factors like lower propensity for service and the use and/or abuse of prescription drugs. A common refrain recruiters hear is, “I thought the Army was cutting people, why are you recruiting?” That is a good question considering the Recruiting Command is operating in a vacuum where the official desired end strength numbers for this year and for the next decade are unknown. The US Army is currently aiming at 490,000, which appears to be more of a political compromise between the current strength of 498,000 and 450,000 that has been mentioned as a poker chip against sequestration. The national political, budgetary, and strategic jockeying continues, but down at the “tactical” talent acquisition level it would be helpful to know if recruiters are achieving the accessions mission or missing it by a mile.
There are three conflicting factors in the manning of our force. Supply, demand, and the Army’s interaction between the two…
There are three conflicting factors in the manning of our force. Supply, demand, and the Army’s interaction between the two, with recruiters as the face to the public and Training and Doctrine Command as the back office. The target recruit population for our armed forces is 17–24 year olds. That demographic is currently coming out of the Millennial Generation (using 1980–2000 as the year groups). The millennials have done much of the heavy lifting in the Global War On Terrorism and cover the age ranges that encompass basic trainees to freshly minted majors. With the current maximum enlistment age of 34, Generation X is just about off the hook for national defense. There are plenty of anecdotal generalizations about millennials, but an MTV study called “No Collar Workers” really distills it perfectly:
- 79% of millennials think they should be allowed to wear jeans to work at least sometimes.
- 93% of millennials say they want a job where they can be themselves at work.
- 81% of millennials think they should be allowed to make their own hours at work.
- 70% of millennials also said that they need “me time” on the job.
- 50% said they would “rather have no job than a job they hate.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to talent acquisition, we can only fish from one pond. The opinions and desires listed speak to the lack of desire for someone to sign up to sweep the motor pool with a fresh haircut every Monday morning. The difference between Generation Y (millennials) and Baby Boomers is quite dramatic. The Boomers developed most of our enlistment/commissioning criteria, policies, and systems still in effect today, as well as filling the ranks for the beginning of our All-Volunteer Force. Generation X (1965–1984) might have chafed under the regimented ‘Cold War Era’ exigencies of service but the societal effect of the Information Age is a new phenomenon unique to late millenials and the teenage iGeneration.
The next factor is demand. The US Army determines the “quality” of an applicant primarily using two criteria: possession of a high school diploma and scoring a 50 or higher on the ASVAB, which makes them an “A”. An applicant with a different form of high school equivalency diploma (such as a GED) and/or scores a 49 or lower is considered a “B”. The total proportion of “B” quality enlistments that a military branch can approve in a fiscal year is limited by 10 US Code § 520. The ASVAB gives a score based on how an applicant scores in reference to other test takers. So an applicant that received a 50 scored better than 50% of the test taking population. This is why the highest score is a 99, because the test operates in whole percentages and you can only score higher than 99% of test takers. Due to our requirements under US Code, the majority of our enlistees must score above a 50, having outperformed 50% of their peers. By nature of the way the ASVAB is scored, we eliminate 49% of our test takers from being considered a quality applicant without any relation to whether or not this year’s cohort of almost 50s might actually have the cognitive ability to perform the tasks assigned.
Another constriction is comparing current ASVAB scores with previous years which hides a dramatic educational and cognitive attainment issue. There are competing scientific and social theories for whether IQ is increasing or decreasing over time. Comparing IQ score averages over multiple generations compares dramatically different types of required information. But simply relying on the secondary school output of graduates does not create a standard or general level of expected cognitive ability. For example, according to Columbia University 60% of community college freshmen need remedial courses to make up for the skills they did not develop in high school. In 2012, the average SAT test takers scoring well enough to indicate success in college was the lowest in 40 years. Students are quantifiably performing lower than previous year groups and, coupled with cities like Chicago that are quite happy with a recently risen 70% graduation rate, the available population of recruits just gets smaller and smaller.
Current guidelines also demand things like a Body Mass Index of 24% or less for the largest target age cohort. This narrows the field when the CDC reports“Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” Also, the Army has the ever-popular, newly weaponized AR 670–1 which established arbitrary tattoo size and location rules, like limiting visible tattoos to four or less. This is challenging in that the Pew Research Center states about millennials that “Nearly four-in-ten have a tattoo (and for most who do, one is not enough: about half of those with tattoos have two to five and 18% have six or more).” [emphasis my own] So assigning any credibility to this Pew report means up to 1 in 5 of our millennial pool of applicants are most likely disqualified before they can even get to a recruiter’s office.
All of that isn’t even diving into the truly shifting sands of medical requirements. Where should we draw the line on ADHD? Or what if a 17 year old insists he has a gluten allergy? Small, common things like appendectomies or tonsil removal require complete medical record reviews by military contracted physicians. Due to healthcare protection laws recruiters can’t go request these documents, it is up to the applicant to provide them. Did you get stitches when you were four? What if the hospital that gave you those stitches has been bought and changed names four times since 1988? There are still no clear cut answers on the dramatically over-prescribed ADHD problem. The rate of children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD has increased 3–5% annually. The ADD/ADHD phenomenon is such a crucial factor considering an applicant currently prescribed medication cannot enlist and they must have been off the medication for over a year as well as “demonstrate passing academic performance” according to our enlistment regulation AR 601- 210.
Societal issues aside, from a purely parochial interest of having medically qualified applicants for the Army that is troubling. If an applicant attends any kind of counseling or therapy from their parents’ divorce when they were five then all records of the counseling are required for review prior to the applicant processing to join the Army. Invariably there are no documents from someone telling a five year old to ‘color their feelings’ so the applicant has to get a memorandum from the office or therapist (assuming they are still practicing) stating that no such documents exist. I have no doubt the medical providers that work at Military Entrance Processing Stations and in our recruiting commands are great Americans, but their guidelines are either far too restrictive or vague.
The final element of our current talent acquisition problem is our apparatus for finding the ever-shrinking pool of qualified and willing applicants. This is an immensely expensive and geographically dispersed endeavor. According to the USAREC website there are 9,500 soldiers spread across 1,400 recruiting centers and the Headquarters at Fort Knox. Across the US there are 65 Military Entrance Processing Stations where 430 physicians conducted 274,000 physicals in 2014. Out of that number only 209,000 met requirements for enlistment. Now spread those 209,000 across the cognitive distribution and then divide them among the different services. The 9,500 recruiters the US Army has spread across this country are mostly coerced labor (65% selected). The Department of Army has to select individuals from other commands (such as Forces Command) and detail them to recruiting due to lack of volunteers for this difficult special duty assignment. The requirements to be a recruiter in a “position of special trust” are the same as for Drill Sergeant duty and many other special duty assignments. The available pool of non-commissioned officers available to perform this important duty where they are trusted on a daily basis amongst American high school students will decrease in proportion to our reduced end strength. But the geographically dictated amount of recruiters needed is a near constant requirement for the institutional Army. If we let complete fiscal “bang for the buck” determine the location and number of recruiting centers the Army could fail to offer any capacity for an individual from a sparsely populated area to enlist. On the street recruiting level the Army competes with other services and colleges. In-service, the recruiting branch competes against all of the other special assignments available for a dwindling supply of the most qualified.
The Human Dimension Concept (TRADOC PAM 525–3–7) lists some dramatic issues with finding talent: “Many potential recruits lack basic skills in math, reading, and writing, despite having a high school diploma,” “youth obesity rates have skyrocketed and participation in athletics has declined,” “Over the past decade, the level of physical and motor fitness among America’s youth has plummeted,” “Many scholars have noted an increase in narcissism and a decline in empathy among young Americans,” and many other dire warnings and observations. But then the very next sentence says “As it meets the recruiting challenges of the future, the Army must continue to ensure that it remains a values-based organization. It cannot compromise its ethics or lower its standards to meet a recruiting goal.” The Army Operating Concept and the analysis of the ‘Human Dimension’ are great steps into defining what types of human capital will be needed. The Human Dimension White Paper uses terms like establish “cognitive dominance” and an increased cognitive requirement placed on the average soldier in the Force of 2025. Also, increased need for “holistic health” and fitness. Both documents and the entire concept definitely relies on the assumption that America has enough young people willing to start the road to “optimized human performance.”
[Recruiting talent] relies on the assumption that America has enough young people willing to start the road to “optimized human performance.”
It is time to embrace some key facts as an institution: 1) the qualified pool of applicants with a propensity for service will continue to get smaller; and 2) our supply for military service is a relative known. Census data, high schools, colleges, past demographics, and markets all guide us on where and how many potential enlistments are out there. If the equation is diminishing on the supply side, then the only options available are to change the other two components — the demand and the approach. We can desire, and should strive, for an Army of resilient, strong, smart, and dedicated soldiers. But the cost and difficulty of finding the talent needs to be planned and it is more than just a variable, it is the fundamental source upon which all the additional functionality we want is built. The value proposed to many of our applicants previously relied on filling a need the market isn’t providing. The GI Bill and a job with healthcare and benefits was a strong offer for a long time in American society…and arguably was a catalyst for the post-war middle class boom. The military is no longer the only game in town for these benefits. States are now offering “free” college and the President has called for expanding the program nationally. Starbucks offers a free Bachelor’s degree to part-time baristas and “children” can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until age 26. The Army’s value proposition is eroding due to market competition.
We can desire, and should strive, for an Army of resilient, strong, smart, and dedicated soldiers. But the cost and difficulty of finding the talent needs to be planned and it is more than just a variable, it is the fundamental source that all of the additional functionality we want is built on.
There are changes to the demand issue available now. Completely update medical requirements to allow for the known advances in medical science and adaptive capabilities available. Lower the eight year service obligation, considering millennials are the most career-mobile minded generation. Create a menu of enlistment criteria unique to each military specialty and then require an applicant to meet a certain percentage of them, which will prevent a mostly qualified applicant from walking out with a single disqualifying trait. Change Army Regulation 670–1 to allow for tattoos everywhere except hands, neck, and face. Include allowances for previously gauged ears (which is currently a major disqualifier). Place “accredited” GED programs on par with high school diplomas when determining quality. The Regular Army and Reserves should copy and expand a version of the National Guard’s “try one” in the Guard program, where an enlistee could sign up for one year of serving with a more fluid ability to remain in the service or temporarily have breaks in service.
Recruiting nationwide is a joint endeavor. Fostering an environment of competition between branches is not a long term strategy for success. The Department of Defense could balance critical shortage career fields across a much wider spectrum than just using the current branch-specific platform and use dynamic requirements adjustments to meet the need of specific career fields. With the national pendulum swinging in favor of legalizing marijuana, a possession charge should not be an immediate disqualifier (USAREC is currently staffing and directing variations on this). The prevalence of police officers and other “intervention” type enforcement and counseling services in high schools is increasing, which has increased the amount of criminal offenses minors are charged with. A much wider array of offenses committed as minors should be waived. Plenty of smart high schoolers make dumb choices and need and deserve waivers for military service. Create a more formal mentor/recruiter position and capacity for retired veterans to be influencers in their community. A retired Master Sergeant coaching a high school softball team in Bozeman, Montana could be a dynamic influencer for recruiting; pay her some level of part-time pay or let her accumulate additional percentage points on her “high-three” retirement wage. That would be dramatically cheaper than paying to move a staff sergeant with his wife and two children to Big Sky country every three years.
Finally, truly value and reward energetic NCOs that enter and serve in the human dimension realm. Special duty pay does help cover for the additional hours and unique responsibilities for most recruiters but the pay does not extend to officers. The Army promotes the skills and traits it values. Recruiting deserves its share of top talent tied directly to how seriously the Army accepts the challenges put forth in the Human Dimension White paper and the Army Operating Concept. Currently, recruiters are working additional hours across the country, in dress uniform, on a daily basis in high schools. The old adage “at least you aren’t deploying” rings a little hollow when most soldiers would prefer to be deployed or in the field than go sit in a kitchen drinking stale coffee trying to convince a parent to let their child ship to basic training. In addition, increasing the ability for a recruiting volunteer to pick their recruiting area can dramatically improve their morale and their effectiveness.
The important business of talent acquisition deserves the Army’s full attention and effort to improve. Human capital recruitment and management is by nature not as exciting as shooting gunnery or conducting field exercises, but the latter would never occur without the former.
W. Sparks is an officer in the US Army and a Recruiting Company Commander. His views do not reflect those of Recruiting Command, the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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