This is a story about recruiting, the economy, and culture.
The Wall Street Journal this week tracked some of the ways that the Army is trying to make up for the fact that it fell 10 percent behind its recruiting goals last year.
We'll get to "how" shortly, but first the "why."
Last year, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis cited the still-strong economy as one of the key reasons for recruiting woes: "We have no doubt that as the economy improves we have more competition," he told the military site Task & Purpose.
The Journal summarized things the same way in its article about military recruiters: "[Y]oung people ... have other job options in a strong economy."
As someone who served in the military, however, and then wrote about it for newspapers like Stars and Stripes and The Washington Post and in books, it bothers me to think the economy is really the main issue here.
Frankly, "bothers" isn't a strong enough word, because of how strongly I feel about the U.S. military. Because that would suggest that even the people doing the recruiting don't believe the military is elite enough to compete with other opportunities.
The danger then is that you panic, and you lower your standards a bit. And that ultimately makes any organization seem even less elite and attractive. As one U.S. Army infantry officer wrote in a paper earlier this year:
"[B]laming [the healthy economy] for [the] recruitment shortcoming is a fundamentally misleading narrative that misses an important opportunity for the Army...
He later added:
"If this is true, instead of the military getting the best of the best, we get the best of what is left."
Here are some of the things the Journal is reporting that the Army is doing to try to turn the tide:
- Tailoring recruitment messages down to the neighborhood level that recruiters are working in,
- Assigning recruiters so that their demographic background mirrors their territories, and
- Making sure that recruiters have the newest, coolest uniforms.
None of these are bad ideas, honestly. I like the new, retro Army service uniforms. Apparently, recruits do, too.
But anecdotally, I find that I'm seeing and hearing other things suggesting that perhaps the bigger problem might be one of culture -- or at least the perception of culture.
It's things like the statistic suggesting that 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
It's renewed attention to "bad paper discharges;" where someone who enlists and later gets in minor trouble can be kicked out with a less-than-honorable discharge, which means they have a worse civilian record than if they'd never volunteered to begin with.
It's the fact that U.S. Army is still fighting in Afghanistan, a full 18 years after September 11, 2001. Fewer troops are going there now, but still, the youngest recruits weren't even born on September 11, 2001.
I can't help but think about 9/11 for another reason. I was a lieutenant in the Army Reserve back then. At our weekend drill just four days after the attacks, most of use were literally raising our hands, volunteering -- heck, begging -- to go anywhere and do anything.
We didn't care about the economy or how going on active duty would disrupt our lives. We wanted to go immediately because we cared about being a part of what was going to happen.
(Ironically, we also feared the war would be over before we got a chance to do anything. The joke was on us!)
I'm glad we're not facing that kind of crisis now, of course. And maybe these aren't new problems. Maybe I'm just getting older. But I also hope I'm still thinking of soldiers first.
Because whether you're recruiting for the military, or a company, or any organization, there has to be something else: a culture and a message, that makes people think, "I want to be a part of that."
It's hard to make it happen. It's hard to build that kind of culture. It's also the core of leadership.
Succeed at that however, and you'll be able to recruit the best to join you, no matter what the economy is like.