6 ways the military can appeal to Gen Z and recruit more than a few good men and women
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The U.S. Army fell short of its 2022 enlisted recruiting goals of 25 percent. A booming labor market was the immediate cause, but the crisis took years to build. This reflects a confluence of obesity, lack of high school graduation and accelerating mental health crises among young people. Likewise, while the all-volunteer force (AVF) was a great success in many ways, it separated the military from wider society, leaving declining interest in military service and the military recruiting into a shrinking pool of military families. .
There are changes the Army can make to address long-term negative trends. Here are suggestions on six dimensions:
1. Better messaging
It’s simple and easy to say, but hard to do. Still, Gen Zs are likely to be more drawn to the military if they knew what it was really doing. Without a doubt, jumping out of airplanes would look very cool on Instagram. No FOMO (fear of missing out) there. The Army offers a demanding and extreme career, and it has a compelling story to tell, providing not only vocational training of significant value in the civilian market, but also a wide range of experiences. These include: independence but with protection; military housing allows soldiers to marry and live alone without having to pay a fortune for a house.
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2. Target more carefully
Gen Z is diverse and the risk is to treat potential recruits as determined people when, in fact, motivations vary widely. Some are interested in developing specific job skills, while others may want a path to citizenship, general employment, or looking to mature. Some will be driven by genuine patriotism and a desire to make an impact.
3. Start early
With less brand awareness, the military would be well served to get into the hearts and minds of those before they could join the service. Programs such as the Junior Lifeguard Program offered by LA County Fire could be an excellent model for building the Army’s brand among potential recruits. Starting early is also a way to dispel misconceptions about standards and then help potential recruits get in shape, pass the GED, or prepare for the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
4. Help candidates meet standards that make sense
The military is understandably reluctant to relax standards because the economy is hot, or to have looser standards for reserves. Still, some problems are obvious: age limits were relaxed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For both the active force and the reserve, there is no reason why the specialist who will never be in danger should be as fit as the infantry soldier, just as infantry paratroopers do not need in-depth computer skills.
5. Rethink commitments
Silicon Valley salaries will make it very difficult to recruit technicians for the usual commitment, and so it is time to consider more flexibility: patriotism and the interest in being active in another field – which most do not only know from the movies – could they tempt these technicians and other sought-after specialists if the commitment was only for one year, with companies hired on their return? More generally, the challenge of recruiting these Gen Zers is finding ways to plug into them rather than having them plug into you.
6. Recognize that it is about the mission and the people
The motto of management guru Peter Drucker was: “The best investment you can make is in your people. While the Air Force and Navy are platform-centric, the Army, like the Marines, is people-centric, all about the individual combatant. Assigning the best and the brightest to the recruiting mission will serve not only the soldier, but the army itself.
The Army’s deep traditions and ingrained culture are a source of pride and institutional power, but can also make the Army incredibly resilient to change, even for the better. Yet culture is also « can do »: from women in combat to « don’t ask, don’t tell », to open acceptance of homosexuals, what was feared to risk institutional collapse has proven be non-events that expanded the talent pool. Now, the Army « can do » requires it to innovate in its recruiting processes and better connect the needs and opportunities of the Army with the strengths and aspirations of Gen Z.
Gregory F. Treverton is an Executive Advisor at SMA, Inc. He is also a Professor of Practice at Dornsife College, University of Southern California, Chairman of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. Previously, he served as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council of the United States.