As military recruiting lags, Congress worries about future of all-volunteer force

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As the military strives to meet its recruiting targets, lawmakers on Wednesday (April 27) expressed concern that personnel shortages could loom unless something changes.

“To put it bluntly, I fear we are now in the early days of a long-term threat to the all-volunteer force,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC.

During a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, representatives of the five branches of the military said that the readiness of the forces was not yet in danger. But Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, deputy commandant of Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, acknowledged that this year has been “arguably the toughest year in recruiting history.” .

The Army has only reached about 23% of its active-duty recruiting goal of 60,000 in the first five months of fiscal year 2022, according to Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, deputy chief of staff. of the army for the personnel.

However, in a written statement provided to lawmakers, Brito said the military “remains focused on quality over quantity” and is confident it can attract talented recruits while “modestly” downsizing its final roster at the moment. during fiscal years 2022 and 2023. Brito added that retention has been strong across active duty, reserve and Army National Guard components.

Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade stand in formation during a World War II memorial ceremony, June 1, 2019, in Bricquebec-en-Contin, France. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Henry Villarama.

Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force leaders have all said they expect to meet their goals – or come close to them – during this exercise. , but not without challenges. Vice Admiral John Nowell, chief of naval personnel, said the Navy was on track to meet its recruiting targets, but would do so by reducing its delayed entry program, which “will be difficult to maintain. “.

Tillis characterized the problem as a two-pronged recruiting war, with a shrinking pool of eligible applicants on one side and a lack of interest among qualified Americans on the other.

“Every metric tracks the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “In most cases, we are seeing the worst numbers in the past two decades.”

Only 23% of young Americans are even eligible to enlist without a waiver due to high rates of obesity and minor criminal offenses such as recreational drug use, according to the Department of Defense. Just three years ago, 29% of young Americans were eligible for the service, according to Pentagon data, suggesting a downward trend.

An even smaller group of Americans are interested in serving. According to defense officials, young people’s interest in military service has fallen from 13% in 2018 to 9% in 2021, representing about 1 million fewer potential recruits.

10 weeks
A trainee crawls under barbed wire during a basic combat training obstacle course, April 23, 2020, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amanda Hunt.

After 20 years of continuous war, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, pointed out that the country is seeing a new chapter unfold with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as increased cyber threats. more sophisticated.

“The need for a highly skilled and competent military and civilian workforce within the Department of Defense…has never been greater,” Gillibrand said.

Leaders of the five branches noted that the pandemic and a growing military-civilian divide have hampered recruiting efforts. Low unemployment and rising wages in the civilian labor market have also led to increased competition for qualified military personnel. The military offered unprecedented enlistment and retention bonuses in an attempt to contain labor shortages.

Service chiefs hope the 4.6% increase in military pay and increased housing allowances outlined in the 2023 budget request will also help attract new recruits. They also mentioned the need for increased access to childcare services for military families, as well as efforts to help military spouses obtain employment.

drill sergeant
Staff Sgt. Amber Staroscik, Senior Drill Instructor for 3241 Platoon, Lima Company, places the coveted eagle, globe and anchor emblem in the palm of a recruit and congratulates them on their transformation into the United States Navy. United. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine.

All directorates have stressed that addressing climate and culture-related issues – including sexism, racism and mental health – is a priority. Officials said improving diversity, equity and inclusion efforts maximized the services’ ability to recruit and retain top talent, and the Marine Corps boasted that 48% of enlisted recruits at in fiscal 2021 came from what the service called diverse groups.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was asked about the recruiting issues. Kirby said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is aware of the problem, but stressed that recruiting challenges are not yet at extreme levels and that Austin does not want to “dictate too much” how departments manage their workforce.

“[Austin is] very comfortable with his own authorities here,” Kirby said. “And it also recognizes that the services have unique recruiting requirements, not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of skills.”

Read more : Air Force offers bonuses of up to $50,000 for new recruits, $420,000 to keep pilots

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