Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said many times that the majority of enlisted military recruits come from just six states and that he would like to see a more diverse recruitment pool. Some of his Force of the Future proposals are aimed at this issue.
Attracting recruits aged 17 to 24 from across the country is an important goal for the secretary, and it’s a challenge in light of the composition of today’s military.
The military attracts most of its recruits from the southeastern part of the country. Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi are fertile recruiting grounds for the services. Georgia has the highest recruit-to-population ratio in the nation. Those six states, plus Idaho, Arizona, Maine, Hawaii and Alaska are overrepresented in the military when adjusting for differences in population.
Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota, North Dakota and Utah are underrepresented in the military. The states in the rest of the nation are within the parameters of their recruit-to-population ratio, officials said.
“It’s certainly important to reflect the nation we serve, to have a force that’s representative of all the states and all the various different populations across the country,” said Stephanie Miller, DoD’s director of accession policy. “We also need to ensure that from a recruiting perspective we are tapping into all the various populations throughout the United States. We would quickly run out of eligible recruits if we were concentrating on one area of the country.”
It is also important for Americans to have a connection with its military, she said.
Propensity to serve
A phrase heard often in the accession world is “propensity to serve.” Many of the Force of the Future initiatives seek to encourage the propensity to serve. “The millennial generation is hard-wired for service,” said Chris Arendt, the deputy director of accessions policy. “They were encouraged all through school and with organizations in their communities to volunteer. But it hasn’t carried over to military service in many parts of the country.”
Youth want to contribute, Miller said, adding that surveys show that fully 70 percent of youth have “making a contribution to society” as a life goal.
“There is this interest in serving the community and in serving in some way to better the world around you,” she said. “There are lots of ways to do that. The military is one of those, but there is also the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps [or] Teach for America. There are so many different ways to do that, so our challenge is being able to find those qualified youth and then help interest them in military service as a way to serve your community.”
The military is also smaller than it once was, and this causes its own set of issues. In 1945, 12 million Americans were under arms. In 1973 — the year the all-volunteer force began — 2.2 million personnel were on active duty. Today, that number is around 1.3 million.
Fewer people joining the military means fewer veterans entering the civilian population. “Fewer veterans means fewer people who are likely to recommend military service based on their personal experience,” Miller said.
“We are unfortunately losing The Greatest Generation — the World War II generation — and as we lose them, veterans who would talk of the value of military service are no longer there,” she added.
With fewer such veteran-influencers to recommend military service to prospective enlistees, there’s more work for military recruiters — who may be the only representatives of the armed services in the communities. In 1995, 40 percent of youth had a parent who had served in the military. In 2015, only 16 percent of the youth had a parent who’d served.
Miller said that studies show that many young people just don’t know what military service brings in terms of leadership opportunities, education opportunities and learning a skill or profession.
“I like to say … that the youth population is not necessarily saying ‘no’ to the military, it’s that they don’t ‘know’ about the military,” she said. “They just haven’t had the exposure to it, so it doesn’t necessarily enter into their thinking when they start considering their options for a future career path.”
The military’s “footprint’ in the United States also is shrinking, again giving youth fewer chances to interact with someone from the military. The six states in the Southeast have numerous military bases, and those service members are parts of the communities around the bases.
“Part of that may not even have been exposure to service members, but someone who just worked on base,” Miller said. “[When a base is present in a community], there is this general understanding of what the military is and what you can do in the military in uniform or as a civilian.”
In the area around Fort Drum, New York, for example, the propensity for military service is higher than it is in the rest of the state, Miller and Arendt said.
Reaching out to the youth cohort is a challenge. “All of us recognize that with the advent of multimedia, social media, the internet, that we all consume information in a very different way,” Miller said. “It used to be … your television and radio were your primary sources of entertainment and information. Even just advertising for … the armed services, you had a much greater likelihood of your recruiting or influencing population seeing your advertising content.”
But now people are able to tailor their information feeds. They are able to see television programs without commercials, for example. “You avoid a lot that marketing content, and we have to be more creative in how we try to place some of that advertising content just to get the message out,” Miller said. “How do we catch the attention of that prime market?”
Using the internet to recruit
There has been a significant effort over the past year to look at these challenges and to look at the innovative solutions that private companies or nongovernmental agencies use to reach their intended audiences, Miller said. It is a challenge, she added, and the services have to learn “to pound the digital pavement” to increase awareness and attract qualified recruits.
The Force of the Future initiative has some concrete proposals. Expanding the recruiting data bases is one. “Gathering additional information will help us find those qualified individuals,” Miller said.
Officials are also looking at developing better algorithms in terms of that social media content. “How do we figure out what social media sites young people are going to today and how do we figure out the best use of our online presence,” she said.
DoD also is working on modernizing the military entrance processing experience. “Many people will say the experience walking into a [Military Entrance Processing Station] is very similar to what their grandparents experienced,” Miller said. “We’re trying to modernize that process through digitizing all our forms, and creating a better medical process.”
Changes in testing
Officials also are looking at changes to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery of tests. “The ASVAB has been around for many years and is one of the best predictors of success in a military career,” Miller said. “But some of the more recent best practices include a personality test and an interest inventory test. We’re examining how to develop those batteries and add them to the ASVAB. This will give us a better ‘fit-fill’ for recruits.”
Additional changes are also under discussion, Miller said.