Commentary | Call to Service: Innovation Needed to Improve Recruiting, Retention

By Capt. James J.W. ClarkeFebruary 23, 2023

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Director of the Mission Command Center of Excellence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Brig. Gen. Jason Slider recites the Oath of Enlistment with four recruits at the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo in Topeka, Kansas, Oct. 22, 2022.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Director of the Mission Command Center of Excellence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Brig. Gen. Jason Slider recites the Oath of Enlistment with four recruits at the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo in Topeka, Kansas, Oct. 22, 2022. (Photo Credit: Pfc. Joshua Holladay) VIEW ORIGINAL

The call to service is, often, going unanswered. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville acknowledged the daunting challenge facing Army recruiters when he described the quest to find recruits as a “war for talent.” By all accounts, the Army is not winning this war. This decline is occurring despite the potential for recruits to receive up to $50,000 in combined enlistment incentives. Unfortunately, money alone is not enough to turn the tide.

If the Army is to win this war for talent, it must innovate on the recruitment and retention battlefield. The Army must reach back further and start investing in America’s youth to help raise the percentage of individuals eligible to serve. Next, the Army must change its recruiting strategy by reintroducing the American people to the meaning and importance of serving in uniform. This campaign should show potential recruits the benefits and challenges of life as a Soldier while also attempting to win over the families of those recruits. The Army needs to continue to identify and address retention problems, as our inability to retain talented individuals compounds our recruiting woes.

Sustainers must acknowledge the fundamental requirement for sustainment is manpower, and that requirement starts with us. A logistician’s mission is to support the warfighters, and if they aren’t in place, well trained and ready to fight, what is supplied does not matter.

If the Army wants more people to come through the door, it must first increase the number of people in line outside. During a visit to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, earlier this year, McConville said, “Right now, only 23 percent of Americans are qualified to serve their country,” while fewer still have any desire to lace up a pair of combat boots. The Army needs to look for ways to invest in the development of the next generation, funding programs that educate, exercise, and energize youth to live up to their full potential. This is no simple task, which is why the military should partner with preexisting programs, bolster their resources, and tweak their offerings to ensure the physical and moral education being offered meets the Army’s goals. Investing in these programs will help build the line outside, increasing the percentage of eligible young Americans to serve. This investment aims to increase the recruiting pool’s size by reducing the number of children who would be disqualified from service because of their physical condition, previous drug use, or prior encounters with the legal system.

Increasing the size of the population eligible to serve is a necessary first step, but it must be paired with a modern recruiting program if the Army is to win this war for talent. The existing recruiting program involves thousands of professional and passionate Soldiers going to schools and local communities to entice young people to serve. While effective in the past, the reality of the present dictates we find a new method. McConville also stated that a staggering 83 percent of the young men and women who come into the Army are from military families. Many of these individuals never needed a recruiter to tempt them into service, for they were already connected to, and familiar with, the military. The Army must seek to reintroduce military service to the average American, because as the American public grows ever more disconnected from military service, and the number of military families with children available to serve continues to decline, recruiting woes will only increase.

We must reach youth who have yet to become familiar with the Army. One possible way would be to combine traditional recruiting efforts with regionally aligned demonstration teams. Demonstration teams would expose the average American to what a day in the life of a Soldier involves, including physical training, vehicle maintenance, air assault operations, and force-on-force training. The goals of these demonstration teams would be to educate and inspire, giving the recruiters a chance to show, rather than just tell, what the Army is. When young people watch the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, many think they would also one day like to soar through the sky piloting a jet. Demonstrating Army capabilities in communities across the nation can inspire the next generation to join the Army formation one day.

The Army must do more than simply inspire the youth of America to serve; it must also educate and motivate the older generations to encourage military service. The Army is missing an important part of the recruiting puzzle by failing to target those who would help influence the decisions of potential recruits. Army professionals must educate those well over the recruitment age about the myriad benefits of military service. Through this education, more recruiters are created, dramatically increasing the likelihood that a young man or woman will come knocking at the Army’s door to sign up to serve or simply to learn more. McConville says we must be more than a military family business; we must be an American family business. If the Army is to become an American family business, it must start by reaching out to the American family, not just the American child.

As the Army seeks to bolster recruiting, it should simultaneously work to retain our talented Soldiers better since each Soldier who leaves creates another vacancy for recruiters to fill. The Department of the Army Career Engagement Survey provides clear evidence of why Soldiers leave while suggesting some critical areas of improvement. The top reasons to leave the Army are the effect of deployments on family or personal relationships, the impact of Army life on significant others’ career plans and goals, the impact of Army life on family plans for children, and the degree of stability or predictability of Army life.

Failing to address these issues does more than simply cost us Soldiers in the short term; it also dramatically increases the recruiting challenges in the long term. When disgruntled service members leave the military because one of these issues was not properly addressed, they are unlikely to encourage the children of their new community to volunteer to serve. Instead of a positive influence, motivating a young person to join our formation, we have a negative one, advising the youth of America about how poorly they were treated while in uniform. Each person we lose to one of these issues does considerably more harm to our recruiting mission than we acknowledge.

Our recruiting challenges are not going away, but the all-volunteer force may, if it continues down the present course. Today’s war for talent is on and it’s being fought with yesterday’s equipment and tactics. The Army must adapt and innovate by investing in youth, modernizing how it educates and connects with the average American, and doing more to support and empower those already in the service.


Capt. James Clarke is currently a student in the Logistics Captains Career Course. He previously served as the executive assistant to Maj. Gen. Deb Kotulich, an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Gavin Lawrence, and as a logistics element commander deployed to Eastern Syria. He was commissioned as a quartermaster lieutenant and awarded a Bachelor of Arts as a Distinguished Military Graduate from Harvard College.


This article was published in the Winter 23 issue of Army Sustainment.


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