Our military’s recruiting efforts have clearly reached crisis mode. All our services are facing challenges in meeting their goals. The services combined needed to recruit about 150,000 new recruits this year across its six services. That goal will not be met, coming up 15% short. The Army is clearly facing the most severe problem, as it has met only about 60% of its target.
A tight labor market is clearly not helping recruiters, but a bigger problem is simply the shrinking pool that recruiters can draw from. Of the 32 million young Americans who are age-eligible for service, only 9.1 million meet the initial requirements. Of those, only 4.4 million meet academic requirements. The pool is further reduced by those who have police records, drug/substance abuse issues or are obese. Those factors shrink the initial poor of 32 million to 465,000 attractive recruits, many of whom will have opportunities in the private sector.
Recent Army data showed that up to 70% of potential recruits interested in Army service are disqualified in the first 48 hours due to obesity, low test scores or drug use.
Adding to the challenge is the propensity to serve. When young people are asked, “How likely is it that you will serve in the military?” only 11% responded “definitely or positively.” Recruiting is not helped when 52% of parents do not recommend military service to their offspring.
With those facts being said, it was very disappointing recently for Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth to blame the media for exacerbating the recruiting crisis. Ms. Wormuth, speaking to a group of soldiers, said the media hurts recruiting when it discusses a range of problems the military is dealing with such as sexual assault and mental health issues. She says resultant coverage of these issues creates a warped sense of the services.
Respectfully, Ms. Wormuth was pointing her finger at the wrong entity. The media have been simply doing their job of covering a range of issues that need to be discussed — some that leadership should have resolved years ago. For example, the services have faced the sexual assault issue for years, perhaps decades. Still, sexual assault across the services rose 13% in 2021. The Army rate, as a matter of note, rose 26% compared with the previous year. Is it any wonder parents are reluctant to recommend the military when they hear these reports?
Similarly, reports of mold, vermin, leaking roofs and poor living conditions in military housing and barracks have been documented for years. Yet many of the problems continue.
Where has leadership been on these issues? Why have these problems continued unabated? Leadership should have stepped in and solved these years ago. Instead, they have lingered on, having a deleterious effect on recruiting.
At Fort Stewart in Georgia, mold in a barracks encrusted entire rooms and soldiers’ belongings. Soldiers told a military publication leadership did not listen to their complaints. So they went to the media because as one soldier said, “That’s the only way senior leaders are going to know they failed.”
Military recruiting and meeting goals does not just fall on the recruiter. It’s an “all hands on deck” issue, and it starts at the top.
Instead of blaming the media, Ms. Wormuth, her service counterparts and our political leaders need to treat recruiting as a national security issue.
The fact that many potential recruits cannot pass the most basic educational test is also a sad commentary on our national educational system. The Army is accepting potential recruits who don’t qualify academically and sending them to a six-week remedial program so they can pass the entrance exam.
It’s not surprising then that the most recent results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study of academic performance by 15-year-old students, showed the U.S. ranking 25th in average mathematics, science and reading. China ranked No. 1.
An Army official recently said the service saw a 10% drop in aptitude test scores during the pandemic, and that number dipped further to 13% this year.
More worrisome is what awaits academically in the long term. The Department of Education recently looked at test-score trends of fourth graders since the pandemic. What they found was the worst drop in math and reading scores in decades — not a good indicator for the future. A professor of sociology and education at Columbia University sounded an ominous warning: “I don’t think we can see these 9-year-olds catching up by the time they leave high school.”
Our recruiting crisis should serve as a wake-up call to every American — and certainly for every political leader, starting with our president. Our armed services are struggling to meet recruiting goals like never before. As a result, we are facing a national security crisis that must be addressed now. It’s not the fault of the media that we have reached this extreme situation.
• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral who served on active duty for 31 years. He sits on the board of the Military Officers Association of America, an advocacy organization that supports a strong national defense and its people. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.”
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