Army Recruiting: Connecting the Dots
In November 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued GAO-06-134, a report generously entitled “Military Personnel: DOD Needs Action Plan To Address Enlisted Personnel Recruitment and Retention Challenges.”
First some extended background (or you can skip the next four paragraphs if you’re rushed).
In truth, 2005 recruiting results were horrible for all Army components. The active force achieved only 92% of its goal; the Army National Guard reached only 80%, the third straight year the Army Guard has missed its goal – this time by the widest margin. Recruitment for the Army Reserve yielded enough volunteers to achieve 84% of the goal, a drop of 17% from 2004.
Recruiting results for two of the three other services were mixed. Both the Navy Reserve (88%) and Air National Guard (86%) were below their goals, leaving the Marine Corps as the only Service with both (the Corps has no National Guard) components reporting 100% or better.
Retention rates for Army, Marines, an Air Force enlisted personnel ranged from 102.7% of a component’s goal to 137% for Marines inking extensions past the initial re-enlistment period. However, the Navy missed all three categories. The other bit of “good” news was that all service components were under the maximum attrition ceiling set by the Pentagon. Put another way, allowed to lose a certain percentage of individuals, every component could have shed more people without exceeding the allowed number.
What to do to get the numbers up and fill the ranks was a major preoccupation of the Army’s leadership. Obvious monetary inducements that required congressional action – e.g., exempting re-enlistment bonuses from federal income tax if the papers are signed in the war zones – were already in play. Facing the reality of a drawn-out insurgency in Iraq and a revitalized one in Afghanistan, the Army had been authorized to increase signing and re-enlistment bonuses in Fiscal Year 2005. This helped the Army meet its goals for new enlistments in the closing months of FY2005, but it was not enough to compensate for shortfalls in previous months.
One of life’s many maxims about statistics is “figures lie” (the rest of the aphorism is “and liars figure”). The recruiting and retention numbers per se are undoubtedly accurate, but the real story is to what extent will the Army (and other services) go to meet recruiting goals in FY2006? The answers came rapidly as the year began.
The old standby of more money came into play. The Pentagon asked Congress to fund increases reaching $40,000 for qualified new recruits enlisting in certain military specialties and $150,000 for high skilled individuals re-enlisting in critical specialties where people were in short supply. A new $2,500 “finder’s fee” for non-recruiters who bring in a new enlistee was also proposed.
Educational standards were altered to deal with “reality,” as one unidentified “Army official” put it. The Army for years had accepted a maximum of 2% of new enlistees scoring in the bottom quarter (Category IV) on the military’s mental aptitude test. Calling the percentage a “guideline” (which is less than a “standard”), Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey said the service would take 4% Category IV enlistees. Moreover, the service decided to accept a higher percentage of non-high school graduates among new recruits.
Came November and the Army touted its successful recruiting effort for October, the first month of FY2006. There was, however, a hole in the paper where a dot was supposed to be. The Army’s “success” rested on not the expected 4% Category IV baseline – I mean guideline – announced by Harvey but on a real world 12% of October’s recruits scoring in the lowest acceptable educational aptitude level in math, general science, and verbal comprehension.
And the Army’s response when questioned about the 12%? “We’re on track to meet our 4% annual goal.” Obviously, the service is banking on a number of one, two, and three percent months – or it will point to Pentagon “guidelines” that permit 12% or federal law that sets a limit at 20%.
In January 2006 Congress approved the $40,000 enlistment bonus but went to only $90,000 for re-enlistment bonuses. Perhaps sensing trouble in reaching its recruiting numbers, the Army decided to limit the National Guard to its actual numbers (“faces in spaces” ) – 333,000 – rather than its authorized size – 350,000. It also raised the maximum age for new recruits from 35 to 40 years.
All this – plus a goal of 700 new enlistees in December – did indeed keep the Army on track. However, with a total annual target of 80,000, the Army had recruited just 11,500 individuals in three months. With three quarters of FY2006 left beginning January 1, recruiters needed to average 23,167 new enlistments every three months, more than twice the total of the first quarter.
The scale of the challenge can be measured by the fact that November’s total for new recruits was 5,826. Another fact is the Army is betting the farm that it can recruit 38,900 – almost half its goal for the year – in the last quarter. True, summer is lucrative among the just-graduated high school cohort, but one cannot help speculating that the Army hierarchy has a side bet going that the first troops will be on their way home from Iraq by June.
With February came more revelations. The Army was taking in recruits who, under previously enforced “guidelines,” would have been excluded because of their criminal records – including alcohol and drug abuse. The number accepted despite “serious criminal misconduct” that includes robbery and making terrorist threats, rose by a third from 408 in 2004 to 630 in 2005. At virtually the same time, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals serving in the military was attacked not only for its financial costs – $364 million over the first decade, according to a University of California study – but also for the toll on the individual’s sense of self-worth. This study was at odds with a GAO report, also issued in February, which put monetary costs of replacing the 9,488 individuals discharged for breaking the policy at $190.5 million.
But this month – only this week, actually – came the coup d’grace. The Army modified its policy barring anyone with a tattoo that would not be covered by a military dress uniform (meaning full sleeve-length jacket). Now recruits can have tattoos on hands or neck as long as the design is not “vulgar, profane, indecent, racist or extremist” and does not “extremely degrade military appearance.”
The Army says that relaxing the tattoo “guidelines” opens up opportunities to bring in “highly qualified” individuals who could not enlist under the old rules. But considering that only 14% of all recruits come from major urban areas (which I for one think of in association with tattoo parlors – my misconception, perhaps), one wonders how many are added to the pool of potential recruits.
At the midpoint of FY2006, about the only thing that’s clear is that the Army has a monumental challenge and will need help in connecting all the dots if it is to reach its goal of 80,000 new recruits this year.
One way to go is to reduce the demand for troops by undertaking permanent reductions in foreign military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This should be followed by resizing the forces for the expected future threats while simultaneously strengthening non-military, multi-lateral channels for resolving conflict before it becomes armed conflict.
Alternatively, the Army could consult one of the more prominent pointillists down the street at Matt’s tattoo parlor.