WASHINGTON — Army Secretary Christine Wormuth knows she — and the Army — can’t control everything in life.
The Army can’t control childhood obesity rates. The Army can’t control the falling rate of applicants medically or legally eligible to enlist. Nor can the service stop seismic shifts in the labor market, or control the falling percentage of veterans, who are traditionally the most influential and trusted advocates for military service among the U.S. population.
But Wormuth, who announced sweeping recruiting reforms last week, is focused on what the Army can control.
Some of the organizational moves can occur almost immediately with a stroke of her pen:
- Recruiting Command, led by Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, will now directly report to Army headquarters, instead of Training and Doctrine Command.
- The Army Enterprise Marketing Office, headed by Brig. Gen. Antoinette Gant, will now directly report to Recruiting Command.
Other changes will take years, though Army headquarters will soon issue orders detailing how the effort will unfold, Wormuth said.
Some of those reforms include: focusing on recruiting Americans who have attended some college; creating experimental recruiting units to try new approaches without having to meet a quota; abolishing involuntary recruiting assignments in favor of a specialized recruiting MOS; or even bringing in those without prior service, but with relevant experience, to serve as recruiters.
“I see these transformations as us taking charge of our own destiny,” said Wormuth in an exclusive Sept. 28 interview with Army Times ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting. The Army’s top civilian provided an inside account of why and how the service, facing a shortage of new recruits and potential structure cuts, rethought and reformed its recruiting and marketing structure.
The far-reaching reforms will combine to largely align the Army’s recruiting practices with those of the private sector, Wormuth said.
Early efforts didn’t go far enough
When the Army’s top leaders realized in early 2022 that its recruiting efforts had collapsed, they rapidly rolled out a series of initiatives to avoid falling short of required troop levels. Army Times detailed the service’s in-progress efforts in June 2022.
Some of the efforts succeeded more than leaders anticipated.
The Future Soldier Prep Course, initially a pilot program, became permanent and has helped more than 10,000 recruits meet Army body fat or academic standards before renegotiating their contracts and shipping to basic training. A new referral program established ribbons and accelerated promotions for enlisted troops who pointed willing friends to recruiters.
Other programs fell flat or died on the vine. Juicing recruiting bonuses didn’t fix the problem. Offering merit-based education waivers to non-GED high school dropouts created a political firestorm, and leaders ended the program.
Despite the scramble, the Army still ended fiscal year 2022 short nearly 20,000 soldiers. That’s when Wormuth and now-retired Gen. James McConville, the Army’s then-chief of staff, launched a special task force to review the Army’s hiring enterprise — and “tear it down to the studs and see what’s out there,” as Lt. Gen. Doug Stitt, the service’s top personnel officer, characterized the effort during a September 2022 congressional hearing.
The task force’s director, Maj. Gen. Deborah Kotulich, quickly realized the service’s recruiting structures “had been built in the Industrial Age for the Industrial Age,” she said in Army Sustainment magazine. Her team eventually compiled “a rather exhaustive list of the policies, incentives, and processes needing revamping or transformation.”
But many of the ideas were rooted within the structure of recruiting as the Army has known it, where nearly every trick has been tried once. “Nothing was new to our recruiters, especially those sergeants major and master sergeants with 20 or 30 years of experience,” said Kotulich, a Reserve officer who previously was the Naming Commission’s chief of staff.
By early spring, the writing was on the wall, Wormuth said. “Doing more of what we were doing already — sort of trying to do it harder — was just not going to get us the returns that we needed.”
How to find the right answers
So Wormuth, McConville and Gen. Randy George began assembling a study group in May to redesign Army recruiting from a “clean slate.”
Earlier that month, the secretary told lawmakers that the Army was going to miss its recruiting goals again in fiscal year 2023. She warned of “substantial potential force structure reductions” if things didn’t improve.
In addition to the crisis’ rising urgency, Wormuth said her decision and guidance to the study group was motivated by an analysis of internal marketing data she’d read by West Point’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, as well as work by students from professional military education courses in recent years.
Although Recruiting Command and its parent headquarters, Training and Doctrine Command, were involved in the process to provide feedback along the way and feed data to the study group, the Army did not have them lead the study.
Wormuth said she made the move because “it’s really hard to ask the person responsible for managing the present to think about how…we create the future.”
Wormuth and George ultimately tapped Stitt, the Army G-1 and a career human resources officer, as the study team’s leader — taking a page from the private sector’s playbook where many companies associate recruiting with HR.
Stitt’s office was supported by OEMA, Kotulich’s recruiting task force and the Army Enterprise Marketing Office, among others.
The secretary noted that retired Lt. Gen. Tom Bostick advised Stitt. The retired three-star turned around Recruiting Command in 2005 after one of the worst annual performances in its history through a series of tactical and structural changes — and with the help of slightly relaxed entry standards. Bostick, who also served as the Army G-1 and holds a Ph.D. in systems engineering, has worked as an organizational consultant since his 2016 retirement.
With the study team selected, Wormuth said she asked them to consider questions such as:
- Do we have our recruiting enterprise aligned properly to the labor market?
- Do we have the Army’s recruiting force designed, selected, trained and geographically distributed to generate maximum success in today’s labor market?
- Are we giving recruiters the right resources at the right levels?
- Does Recruiting Command have the right command and control or authority over the recruiting enterprise?
- Is Recruiting Command the right organizational approach for Army accessions? If not, how should it be restructured?
- How can the Army make its marketing approach more effective?
Stitt and his team had the summer to answer them, and they did.
Diagnosing the recruiting problem
Perhaps the group’s most important contribution, Wormuth said, was to “diagnose the problems and give us the opportunity to make sure that across the Army, we all…see the problem in the same way.” Stitt’s team focused on factors that the Army could influence.
In recent years, Army and Defense Department data has shown that fewer young Americans can see themselves in uniform, recruiters are increasingly less productive, the academic quality and fitness of applicants has declined, and the Army’s once numerous soldiers-in-waiting have dried up.
One of the major causes Stitt’s team identified: the U.S. labor market has evolved in recent decades, but the Army’s accessions structures had not, Wormuth said. The trends run deeper than recent phenomena such as high employment.
“The labor market has changed…in some very fundamental ways, and the Army has not changed how we recruit...whereas our competitors to a significant degree have,” the secretary explained. She highlighted how the Army has traditionally focused on recruiting recent high school graduates.
In 1973, the year the draft was abolished, only 46.6% of recent high school graduates were enrolled in college, according to federal government figures. That quickly changed. By 1990, more than 60% of recent grads were going to college, and the rate peaked around 70% in 2016 before the COVID-19 pandemic reduced college enrollments.
People with only a high school education represent 15 to 20% of today’s labor market, Wormuth said. But the Army kept going after high school seniors.
“The bulk of the labor market has more than a high school degree, whereas 50% of our Army contracts are high school seniors or high school graduates,” Wormuth said. “So we’re not focusing on a significant population of…the people who are thinking about employment.”
The study also identified that Recruiting Command lacked incentives to experiment with new tactics that could counter changes in the labor market — taking recruiters off the line risked not meeting current year targets. The command has also lacked the resources to accurately assess whether the changes it does make are having an impact.
“We don’t have a very good way of knowing whether the new things we’re actually trying are actually successful,” Wormuth confessed. “This year, for example, we tried so many things all at once — and frankly, we needed to do that. But sometimes it was hard to tell which things were really giving us bang for the buck.”
Another major systemic defect, Wormuth said, was the Army’s over-reliance on “a generalist approach to recruiting.” The service has long used involuntary tours for mid-career noncommissioned officers to fill the recruiting ranks, and they could volunteer to become career recruiters under the legacy recruiting occupational specialty.
“The training they get is shorter than most of the training we give to other [fields] during [occupation-specific training],” the secretary said. “The study team looked at the private sector and talked to Fortune 500 companies. What they found was almost all major companies have a specialized recruiting workforce — they do not take people from all over their company and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to spend a year or two doing recruiting.’”
The study group confirmed that the accessions enterprise’s structural instability may have impacted its performance. All of its elements, including marketing, were centralized under Accessions Command in 2002, then scattered to the winds when the command was inactivated in January 2012. Army marketing was lost in the woods until its 2019 reorganization, but the Army Enterprise Marketing Office reports to an assistant Army secretary, several layers of bureaucracy removed from recruiters.
What will unfold, and when
Wormuth believes that the reforms will address the problems that the study group highlighted, and she described them in detail.
First and foremost, she said, the Army is going to adjust its targets and techniques for “prospecting” in order to increase its share of new recruits who have attended college, including those who may have left school. The goal is to increase the proportion of enlisted accessions who have at least some college credits from its current 20% share of recruits to around 33% by fiscal 2028, she said.
Instead of “a table in a high school cafeteria” staffed by a handful of recruiters, Wormuth envisions an approach that integrates digital job boards and modern private sector recruiting techniques like showing up in force to career fairs in major cities.
She knows that won’t be enough, though, so Recruiting Command will also appoint a deputy commanding general to oversee experimentation units — without contract quotas — tasked with developing and testing new techniques, and the command will receive analytic support to track new initiatives’ successes and failures.
Wormuth emphasized the importance of not requiring experimental units to meet recruiting targets. Because “some of those things will fail,” she acknowledged, but the fear of failure can’t deter trying new techniques.
The reforms also will eliminate one of the Army’s longstanding ironies: using involuntarily selected recruiters to find new troops for an all-volunteer force.
“People who have chosen to be in a certain profession or industry tend to be better performers in that field,” Wormuth noted.
Doing so will abolish the legacy recruiting field, which the Army will replace with a new 42T recruiting track aligned with its human resources specialties, allowing it to tap into existing channels for civilian HR certifications, professional development and private industry fellowships. The Army will also create recruiting warrant officers.
The first 42Ts will be today’s top-performing recruiters, Wormuth said.
Internal recruiters will fan out across the Army to find promising candidates much like in-service special operations recruiting currently occurs, with the help of a specialized aptitude test. The service may also accept non-prior service recruits for recruiting roles.
When it comes to commissioned officers, Wormuth said the service isn’t yet certain how they’ll fit into this new version of Recruiting Command, but she wants them to be specialized to a reasonable extent as well. Currently, most recruiting officer roles are open to all types of officers.
The secretary also explained why she chose to bring Recruiting Command under her office’s control, elevate it to a three-star billet with a four-year command tour, and reassign the Army Enterprise Marketing Office to be under Recruiting Command.
“We need to have as flat a structure as possible to…[ensure we’re] giving all of the resources and authorities to [it],” Wormuth said. “When your [commander’s] tenure is only a couple of years on average, it’s hard to get up to speed, put new initiatives in place, see whether those initiatives are working, and make adjustments.”
Wormuth said those changes will ensure the Army’s recruiting and marketing efforts also mirror “best practices in the private sector, where you have [employment] marketing reporting to the same person who has responsibility for talent acquisition and talent management.”
Ultimately, the recruiting reforms emerged from a place of necessity for the Army, Wormuth said.
“The Army’s recruiting mission is an existential issue,” she said.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.