Roughly half of the US military is in the reserve component. Yet the US military in 2024 is organized and manned by a system designed largely in the 1970s and 1980s, with active duty forces as the central focus. In this way, both individuals and units across the armed services’ reserve forces and the National Guard are managed and measured against active component constructs of readiness and force management. Predictably, the level of frustration in the reserve forces is very high—the Army Reserve cannot even fill 100 percent of its battalion command vacancies. People want to serve, but they are tired of the unnecessary complications or unpaid overtime.

Due largely to the Total Force Policy of 1973, National Guard and reserve forces are viewed primarily as elements of strategic mass rather than the source of critical skills and other enablers that they are. This Industrial Age model is no longer adequate in today’s competition for talent (and time). It is time for a modern solution that more effectively empowers the Department of Defense to tap into the full talents of the part-time forces.

Imagine that the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps needs a unified deployment dashboard that provides real-time updates to force deployments around the world. To create it, the corps mobilizes a Navy Reservist whose day job is supply chain and logistics optimization at Walmart or Amazon to partner with a data scientist from the Air National Guard. Lending their unique expertise, they only need to be mobilized for four weeks to build the dashboard. This is all made possible by a tool that exists today, called GigEagle. is a completely new approach to how DoD understands and leverages its citizen soldiers. Initially developed by the Defense Innovation Unit to address its needs for critical skills, it is a secure and compliant talent marketplace that allows units to access civilian skills from across the joint force for tours ranging from four hours to one year. Crucially, it introduces three unprecedented capabilities to DoD.

First, for the first time in the US military, GigEagle recognizes that each service member is more than just a rank, occupational specialty, and skill identifiers. It captures the full talent profile of an individual, including civilian skills and experience. Current systems and practices cannot account for the idea of a service member with a day job that is valuable to the military (such as software development or medicine)—let alone the idea that military and civilian careers would not be perfectly aligned. Yet it is very common.

The military will always trail industry because it takes years to create new occupation and skill codes. To the Army, I’m a 12A engineer officer, but my day job is software product management—one of the many civilian jobs with no military code. DoD is struggling to recruit and retain people with digital technology talent but we have individuals across the joint force working in these fields. Similarly, we have service members with skills in law, medicine, human resources, marketing, and many other critical areas scattered across our reserve components, especially in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

Yes, the IRR—a force larger than the entire Marine Corps at 220,000 service members—is composed of those who are considered nearly out of the military altogether, with just one more signature needed to be fully separated. When we consider retaining talent, this is a key demographic. It is more challenging and time-consuming to recruit and train a civilian than to bring someone out of the IRR.

What if we could make service attractive to this pool of vetted talent? These service members could have left completely, but they chose not to. Many simply have a service obligation and cannot get out. Yet many others—like myself and many of my peers—still want to serve, but the demands of traditional drilling are too much to balance along with day jobs, education, families, and other commitments. Time is our most precious resource and we want to spend it directly impacting the mission, not on administrative nonsense (or sitting in a drill hall scrolling TikTok).

GigEagle provides a way to harness this largely overlooked part of the total force, and that’s the second innovation: short-term gigs. The “gig economy,” exemplified by Airbnb and Uber, creates a more efficient talent market. Right person, right time, and right place are no longer just empty phrases. Instead of viewing reserve component mobilizations through the usual 365- or 180-day lenses, units can be more precise and use their limited budgets much more effectively while being attractive to part-time service members. This is a win-win for the total force.

Yes, this is a new way of thinking about staffing. Units and leaders will need to spend time identifying the hard problems and key events they will face in the next 6–12 months and, to solve those problems and successfully complete those events, what each deliverable they need will look like. This is results-oriented leadership, which is more likely to achieve outcomes compared to simply asking for a certain branch and rank.

Service members are not simply interchangeable widgets. Consider the difference between a generic post in Tour of Duty—a system that enables Army Reserve soldiers to volunteer for mobilizations—seeking a generic Special Forces officer. Compare that with a targeted, detailed description: We need a leader with experience coordinating combat operations and intelligence who is fluent in Spanish for 8–12 weeks. Ideal candidates have past military experience in Latin America.

That’s the difference between current military tools built for the Industrial Age and what modern talent management is all about.

Lastly, a modern military realizes that it’s not in competition with itself. Is there a meaningful difference between being a Russian linguist in the Navy versus the Army? What about data science, medicine, or civil engineering? No, the skills we have are largely transferable across the joint force, yet each service maintains a talent silo creating excesses and shortages that can be smoothed by other services.

If Navy Supply Systems Command—NAVSUP—needs to update a dashboard in Microsoft Power BI, should it be restricted to seeking the necessary talent only among Navy Reservists? With GigEagle, NAVSUP can see talent from across the force and coordinate to attach the most qualified individuals for a tour and fund them. This is what a truly joint force looks like.

GigEagle is a visionary and transformational solution, but as anyone who works on government technology knows, technology is easy, but policy is hard. Although many units are already tapping into talent via GigEagle, DoD needs to update or clarify policies about how to mobilize and fund reserve component service members to fully leverage this new capability. A match on the marketplace is worthless without a clear route to making use of it.

The under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness must clarify policy to ensure that all units are authorized to convert funding aligned to an unfilled billet into funds that can be used for mobilizations. In addition, the guidance should clarify that service members should not need to transfer units (or move between the National Guard and services’ reserve forces) just to support a short-term project. Lastly, the services should issue guidance for exceptions to policy for mobilizing service members out of the IRR. If the service member is not deploying and the tour is less than thirty days long, requiring a physical, dental exam, and fitness tests should be waived. Service members mobilizing for longer than thirty days should be able to be on orders for up to thirty days while performing those tasks. Together, these changes will greatly reduce the friction—or perceived friction—about gig work in DoD.

If we step back for a moment, the worst scenario right now is that DoD squanders this opportunity. People want to serve, but the current system is simply incongruent with modern American society. The response from service members to GigEagle has been overwhelmingly positive and the only question is whether DoD will recognize this critical opportunity and seize it or continue with its traditional methods and lose these service members for good.

Major Jim Perkins is an Army Reservist currently supporting the launch of GigEagle. After eleven years on active duty, he is now a leader in cloud computing and software development for government and national security.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Airman 1st Class Samuel Becker, US Space Force