HUNTSVILLE, Ala. ― High school seniors have traditionally been Army recruiting’s most reliable target audience, but leadership is realizing that as military service becomes more and more rare and fewer American youth actually know a soldier or veteran, they’ll need to make up that gap by reaching out to younger prospects.

It’s a matter of behavioral economics, the Army assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs said Tuesday at AUSA’s Global Force Symposium, with the acknowledgement that most young people have made a mental list of what they might want to be when they grow up by the time they’ve reached adolescence.

“I would argue that in looking at these generations, we have to begin thinking about how they approach this question of where they will apply their talent,” Dr. E. Casey Wardynski said. “We have to confront this question of, will we wait until they’re 17, or will be start talking to them at age 12, 13, 14, 15, when they form the set of things they are thinking about doing with their life?”

And, particularly if their parents or other close family members never served, the option either may not occur to them or could be completely written off.

“If we wait until they’re 17 or 18, we will not be the first impression,” Wardynski said. “Others will have made that for us.”

Army Recruiting Command is already all over it, standing up both a functional fitness and esports team this year, designed to seamlessly put soldiers right in front of teens as they’re enjoying already established hobbies.

The Army’s foray into virtual gaming began last year, when a Los Angeles recruiter used a hash tag to advertise his participation in a live Ultimate Fighter tournament, streamed via Twitch. About 35,000 people signed up to watch the match, USAREC commander Maj. Gen. Frank Muth said.

“Within five minutes of it going live, 1.1 million had logged on to watch our recruiter ― who was in a uniform ― and he was actually calling a fight in Ultimate Fighter, and he talked about being a recruiter, more than 150 jobs in the Army, and so forth.”

By the following day, more than 2 million had watched, including views of the archived video, Muth said, from Alaska to Texas.

Cut to 2019, USAREC has selected 20 Army gamers ― out of 8,000 applicants ― to be part of an official Army team that will stream their own gaming while at home and travel to tournaments to meet the thousands of teenagers who attend them.

“Our team, they’re part of the recruiting force. They’re going to go through the three-day, intensive recruiting course,” Muth said. “And they’re out there to: 1. Game, 2. Win, and also engage with the Z Generation, to give them knowledge about serving in our military and the opportunities in the military.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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