Army leadership gathered Tuesday to announce that they surpassed their recruiting goal for 2019, signing up more than 68,000 active duty soldiers before the end of the fiscal year, but the long wars in the Middle East weren’t exactly part of the sales pitch.
Based on his experience visiting 30 to 40 recruiting stations this year, the eventual outcomes of wars abroad are “not really part of the discussion” between potential soldiers and their recruiters, Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
“One of the national crises right now is student loans, so $31,000 is [about] the average,” Muth said. “You can get out [of the Army] after four years, 100 percent paid for state college anywhere in the United States."
A significant part of the recruiting push has been showing that the Army serves as a pathway to America’s middle class, with several service leaders noting that their children used GI Bill benefits and ROTC scholarships.
“I have three kids serving. A lot of us have kids serving," Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said. “And the reason is because we see it as a pathway to success."
As it stands, Army leaders anticipate exceeding this year’s desired active duty end-strength of 478,000 troops, landing in the range of 481,000 to 483,000 soldiers thanks to solid retention rates. But new soldiers make up the bulk of the gains.
Educational benefits, trade skill credentialing, adventure and a way out of a small town are still the big reasons young people want to enlist, Muth said.
But Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston cautioned not to fall for the self-centered caricature often depicted of today’s youth.
“This generation, as opposed to other generations, it’s a shift. They want to serve something bigger than themselves," Grinston said. "It may surprise you a little bit.”
Last year, the service set its sights on enlisting 80,000 soldiers, but adjusted its goal in the middle of the year to about 76,500, only to fall short at roughly 70,000 in the end. This fiscal year’s recruitment push was much more modest.
“We made our recruiting mission, so we made 68,000,” McConville said. “Our retention mission ... we’ve retained a lot more than we thought and our attrition has gone down.”
The service had a retention goal of about 50,000 and managed to retain 51,000 soldiers, Grinston said. “Once soldiers join the Army, they want to stay in, even when there is a very healthy economy,” he added.
The low unemployment rate and booming economy make recruiting difficult, especially when compared to past recruiting pushes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that lined up closer to a major global recession.
Also unlike the surge years, the Army didn’t rely on increases in waivers. In fact, this year, the Army issued 3.4 percent fewer waivers, the bulk of which are “moral” waivers that deal with issues like marijuana possession, Muth said
“In terms of quality, we’re better than we have been in the last ten years,” he added.
Better quality recruits ensures that a higher number of them will actually make it through training and complete their first enlistment.
The successful recruitment effort relied in part on the Army’s top civilian and uniformed leaders flying out to 22 American cities to pitch to locals what the service could offer young people — from college financing to the soft skills that employers crave.
The Army did better recruiting in cities outside the southern United States, like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, than it has in past years, according to Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy.
“By readdressing the 22 cities in America, we had a double-digit lift with females and minorities," McCarthy said. "We are getting a much more comprehensive cohort of men and women to join the force that are a reflection of the country.”
The Army’s large recruiting push was sparked by its stated desire to grow to a 500,000-strong active-duty force by the end of the next decade.
McCarthy credited changes to how the Army spends its advertising dollars as a potential game-changer for the service’s recruiting efforts going forward.
“We task organized the entire Army Marketing Research Group differently so that we put branding in control of the secretary and the chief," McCarthy said.
"We moved more uniformed personnel into the marketing organization so that we could try to get control of the messaging.”
The Army recently established a new Chicago-based marketing team stocked with uniformed officers to be closer to its new advertising firm, DDB Chicago, which won a $4 billion contract to serve as the Army’s full-service ad agency until 2028.
“Two years ago, we were spending 50 percent of our advertising dollars on television advertising, and we’ve shifted about upwards of 90 percent to the digital side," McCarthy added.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.