Editor’s note: Earlier this year, we announced an essay contest, organized in association with the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), focused on addressing the US military’s recruiting crisis. After receiving an unprecedented number of submissions, the essays were narrowed down to a small group of finalists, from which leaders at TRADOC selected the top three.
This essay, from Master Sergeant Jesus M. Feliciano and Major Travis M. Prendergast, was chosen as the contest’s third-place entry.
Having served as a company leadership team in the United States Army Recruiting Command (USAREC), we understand that recruiting is a numbers game with extremely thin margins. On a good day, recruiters must attempt to contact ten individuals just to speak to a single one. The recruiters then need to speak with ten individuals to get an applicant to agree to come to the office for a visit. Looking at the benchmarks in US Army Recruiting Command Training Circular 5-03.1, the numbers from that point on do not get any better. For example, the standard is that only 75 percent of those that agree to come in to talk to a recruiter show up. Among those who progress to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the Army expects only 50 percent to receive the minimum score of 31 required for enlistment. Between the ASVAB, medical requirements, lack of follow-through commitment, and other issues, an applicant who agrees to an appointment only has a 10 percent chance of signing a contract. These margins, combined with social and economic factors that are often at the center of recruiting discussions, are responsible for the recruiting crisis America is experiencing today.
While there is no single solution or trick that will solve the recruiting crisis, the recruiting process can become more efficient by making changes to how applicants process through the military entrance processing station (MEPS). Typically, applicants will make multiple trips to MEPS depending on their likelihood of passing the ASVAB and medical screening. The gold standard is the “test, physical, and enlist” MEPS experience in which an applicant takes the ASVAB, receives a physical examination, and signs a contract all in the same day. This outcome is rare, however, and each of the multiple trips applicants must often make takes time. Because a MEPS trip is typically an all-day affair requiring the applicant to take off work or school, making multiple trips means multiple days of altering schedules. Each MEPS trip also pulls a recruiter out of the fight to escort the applicant. In a country with many employment opportunities, these trips represent an unencouraging obstacle to joining the military. However, drawing on lessons from the Europe Recruiting Detachment, the military can streamline the MEPS process and decrease obstacles to joining the service.
First, the military can move away from using guidance counselors at MEPS to oversee the final steps of the recruiting process. In the Army, the guidance counselor is a 79R (Army recruiter) assigned to MEPS who handles enlistment packet reviews and guides applicants through signing their contracts. The problem with this policy is twofold. First, the applicant has no rapport with the guidance counselor. Throughout the applicant’s time in the recruitment process, he or she has been working with a single recruiter at the station level. When applicants subsequently go to MEPS to sign the single most important document of their young lives, they are doing so with guidance counselors they have never met. Second, the simple act of picking a job and signing a contract requires a lengthy trip to MEPS, with all the previously identified problems that entails. Pushing this step down to the company or station level would ameliorate these problems, albeit with some additional training requirements for station- and company-level servicemembers.
Guidance counselors receive certification by attaining the V7 additional skill identifier upon completion of the four-week Guidance Counselor/Operations Course (GCOC). To shift guidance counselors’ services from MEPS to the company or station level, company commanders, first sergeants, or station commanders would need to attend GCOC and receive the V7 additional skill identifier. This would require an increase in the throughput of GCOC. It would also add to the task load of company commanders, first sergeants, and station commanders. However, station commanders are the ones who send enlistment packets to guidance counselors for approval. Thus, certifying station commanders in guidance counselor tasks would remove an extra step from the process. If this seems far-fetched, one could look at the Europe Recruiting Detachment, which, because of the comparatively small and geographically dispersed number of recruits across Europe, does not use MEPS for this part of the recruiting process.
Second, the military should reexamine the role of MEPS in conducting physical examinations. Reducing the reliance of the military upon doctors at MEPS would also streamline the recruitment process. There is no special reason for a physical examination to be conducted by a MEPS doctor. The Europe Recruiting Detachment does not use MEPS for physical examinations but still manages to put many young Americans into the United States Army. Much in the same way that DoD Medical Evaluation Review Board (DoDMERB) physicals can be arranged to take place at local physicians’ offices, applicants should be able to get their MEPS physical done by a regular doctor. Critics of this proposal will argue that this policy would increase the likelihood of applicants forging medical records. However, there are already laws in place to address this. Creating the infrastructure for scheduling the massive amount of physical exams required for the Army’s recruiting goals would be a significant investment. DoDMERB currently manages about 35,000 physical exams every year. In Fiscal Year 2022, medical personnel at MEPS conducted 215,000 medical examinations. DoDMERB would need to increase its capacity tenfold to accommodate both non–prior service enlistments and its current requirements. However, the benefits of streamlining the recruitment process would outweigh the costs.
Finally, with ASVAB testing available at local testing sites, the only thing remaining for MEPS would be the enlistment oath ceremony. This is a meaningful ceremony for many enlistees. However, there is an equally good alternative. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, family members were not allowed to attend these ceremonies for some time. To make up for this, our recruiting company began holding enlistment ceremonies at the recruiting stations. As a result, family members who would not have been able to make the trip to MEPS were able to attend an enlistment ceremony. Furthermore, the enlistees were able to have their recruiters present and as many family members as they would like. The company commander would be able to tell the enlistees’ families about the specific jobs that they would be performing in the Army and what their oath meant. Then, the company commander would lead each enlistee through the oath in front of family and friends. Having sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States in front of their loved ones, enlistees had even more of a reason to follow through with their oath and not become part of the 10 percent that do not attend basic training due to lack of commitment.
The servicemembers and civilians of Military Entrance Processing Command are loyal servants of their country. However, doing things as they have always been done will not solve our recruiting crisis. As we often told the enlistees’ families, the arsenal of a democracy is the all-volunteer force. Without addressing every possible source of friction in the recruitment process, we will not be doing everything we can to ensure that we are able to maintain the force that our country requires. The operational environment is changing, and the United States faces powerful foes on distant shores. We will not be able to rely on the all-volunteer force if it is no longer there.
Master Sergeant Jesus M. Feliciano is a 79R (Army recruiter) who is currently serving as the recruiting department sergeant major at the Recruiting and Retention College in Fort Knox, Kentucky. His twelve-year recruiting career has included serving as a recruiter, station commander, brigade master trainer, and company first sergeant.
Major Travis M. Prendergast is an FA59 (Army strategist) who is currently serving on the Joint Staff. He commanded the Rhode Island Recruiting Company from 2019 to 2021 alongside Master Sergeant Feliciano. He has also served as a rifle platoon leader, rifle company commander, and staff officer.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham, US Coast Guard