“One of the toughest recruiting landscapes I’ve seen in over thirty-three years of service.” That was how Major General Johnny K. Davis, the commanding general of US Army Recruiting Command, described the challenges facing the Army during his testimony, alongside his counterparts from the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. In the wake of consecutive recruitment shortfalls, the US Army is transforming its recruitment strategy. Despite setting an ambitious target of sixty-five thousand recruits for 2023, the Army managed to secure only fifty-five thousand enlistments, further solidifying the need for a recruitment overhaul.

Recognizing the changing social and economic landscape in America, the Army is recalibrating its focus. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth announced sweeping changes to the recruiting enterprise on October 3, 2023. After decades of focusing almost exclusively on a traditional recruitment pool of individuals with a high school education, officials are now aiming for at least a third of all new recruits to have a college education by 2028. This shift acknowledges the evolving labor market, in which nearly 40 percent of all those between twenty-five and thirty-four years old have a bachelor’s degree or higher—up almost nine percentage points from only 2010.

But it’s not just about the who; it’s about the how. Secretary Wormuth also revealed plans to introduce a specialized “talent acquisition” enlisted occupational specialty, under the designator 42T. This move aims to transition from a transient recruiting force to a permanent, specialized team, reflecting practices in the private sector. Furthermore, US Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) is set for a significant elevation, reporting directly to the Pentagon and transitioning its leadership from a two-star to a three-star general. This reorganization will integrate the Army Enterprise Marketing Office and the Army’s Cadet Command, emphasizing the critical nature of recruitment for the Army’s future.

As the Army’s senior leaders geared up for this comprehensive overhaul of recruiting, the Modern War Institute and US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) launched an essay competition to mine the wisdom of the commons. Specifically, the prompt asked: What novel approaches can the United States military employ to solve the recruiting crisis? The responses we received describe the strategic environment and challenges against which the Army released this new recruiting plan and offer useful insights for what will surely be a continuing effort. Two rounds of judging by the essay contest committee, leaders in the recruiting enterprise, and TRADOC’s senior leaders selected our winners:

  1. Rethinking the Military’s Promotional Content Strategy to Address the Military’s Recruitment Crisis,” by Jonathan Li and Max Xie. 
  2. Addressing Military Recruitment Challenges Through Data Sharing,” by Jake Steel and Chad Aldeman. 
  3. Sustaining the All-Volunteer Force Means Streamlining Army Recruitment,” by Jesus M. Feliciano and Travis M. Prendergast.

Despite this broad prompt, submissions focused overwhelmingly on the Army, though we hope the Department of Defense and the other services consider these findings as well. The number of submissions—318 in total, more than any essay competition at MWI to date—suggests passion across the military for solving this important problem. Submissions came from across the joint force, with a majority from the Army authors (249 essays), followed by the Air Force (twenty-two), the Navy (eighteen), and others.

Within these submissions, there was a varied representation of ranks, from junior enlisted personnel to senior officers, illustrating the depth and breadth of insights across the military hierarchy. Civilian perspectives also enriched the discourse, contributing twenty-four essays to the collection. A notable segment of these essays, specifically thirteen, hailed from the Army’s Recruiting Command, offering specialized insights from those with the most direct experience with the Army’s recruitment challenges. This range of backgrounds and experiences provided a comprehensive view of the challenges and potential solutions for the Army’s recruiting crisis.

From forming formidable teams at Army bases to foster recruiting to fueling the future with entrepreneur loans for veterans’ ventures to fashioning a fresh approach that applies techniques from corporations with chief marketing officers, the depth and diversity of discussions in these essays are impressive. Overall, they tend to identify two broad categories of ways the Army needs to renew its recruiting efforts. First, the Army needs to embrace new methods of communicating its message to the American public so that more people know what it can offer. Second, it needs to adopt a more diverse and creative approach to how it incentivizes people to serve.

Embrace Modern Communications Channels

One recurring challenge throughout the essays is the notion that too few people think about the army as a job option, a concept that is often referred to as the propensity for military service. The idea here is that the public lacks familiarity with military service, but if there was more high-quality information available, people would realize the military is an attractive option. A large group of essays in this vein argued for more community partnerships with the military. Current practices, such as Air Force flyovers and servicemember tributes at sporting events, do not sufficiently educate potential recruits about military life. Essays here put forth a range of recommendations, including incentivizing veterans to volunteer as mentors, embedding military liaisons within secondary and postsecondary educational institutions, and organizing military base open houses and ride-along opportunities. Such strategies not only demystify military roles but also empower potential recruits to visualize their places within the Army.

In the evolving world of recruitment, understanding and adapting to the changing educational landscape is paramount. This perspective is underscored by ten essays that highlighted the value of targeting individuals with postsecondary education. The growing prevalence of higher education in the American workforce signifies that the Army can tap into a pool of candidates with diverse skill sets and perspectives; it just needs to reach them. These individuals’ analytical skills from rigorous academic training, combined with the discipline of military life, would make them valued contributors as servicemembers.

Suggestions did not limit themselves to expanding the physical presence of the military in society. The era of digital transformation is reshaping myriad sectors, and military recruitment is no exception. Among the submissions, eighty-six insightful essays converged around the pivotal role of modern communication channels in reaching potential recruits. In particular, many essays argued for meeting Generation Z—and soon Generation Alpha—where they already are, rather than expecting them to come to the military. These approaches prioritize marketing and recruiter outreach through digital platforms, especially social media, to exploit technology to its fullest potential.

Essay authors did not fail to notice that recruiters need additional tools for these new tactics. Several thought-provoking essays suggest that USAREC should delineate its recruiters based on their aptitudes for varied roles, such as social media engagement, contact management, administrative tasks, and content creation. By fine-tuning the training of recruiters and cultivating cross-functional teams that harness these diverse talents, the Army can foster a sense of accomplishment among its recruiters while optimizing recruitment outcomes for a twenty-first-century environment.

Redefine and Diversify Recruitment Approaches

Of course, getting the message out there is only helpful if people like what they hear. Many essays provided creative suggestions for how the Army can refine its value proposition, or what if offers to potential recruits. Part of this is recognizing that there are different reasons people join the Army. While combat arms may still require the most recruits, the Army needs troops with a variety of skills. Moreover, the Army should recognize that marketing campaigns emphasizing high operational tempos and dangerous and exciting opportunities may resonate with only some recruits.

In terms of branding and marketing, some essays applauded the return of the “Be All You Can Be” campaign as a way to appeal to broader populations. Others argued for additional narratives. By tapping into the universal “hero’s journey” motif, Army messaging could resonate with young individuals, aligning with their intrinsic desires to chart meaningful life trajectories.

But marketing cannot do it all. The Army needs to provide a wider array of incentives to attract people who are aware of the Army but are not convinced to serve. For example, the infusion of behavioral economics principles presents an intriguing proposition for refining recruitment strategies by targeting the subconscious decision-making processes of potential recruits. One essay introduces the notion of leveraging concepts like choice architecture and availability heuristics to address the Army’s recruiting challenges. By marrying these behavioral principles with a deep understanding of the unique environment, the Army can craft impactful and resonant campaigns. Many essays argued that more flexible career options and family stability could both strengthen the force and attract more recruits—not least by reinvigorating retention rates so that current servicemembers continue to pitch the military as an attractive career option. Other insightful submissions highlighted a multifaceted approach: not just new monetary and educational incentives, but also clear career pathways, mentorship opportunities, and other intangible benefits.

These essays emphasize the critical importance of continuous training and development, not just for the recruits but also for the recruiters. One noteworthy essay detailed the advantages of ensuring recruiters, as ambassadors of the Army, are armed with the latest knowledge, skills, and tools. Revisions to USAREC career incentives and structures, many of which seem to have been included in the Army’s recent announcement, would create stronger links between recruiters and their communities, so they can better identify what works for the population they work with. The incentive structure must be diversified and enhanced, incorporating a mix of tangible rewards and intangible benefits to cater to the varied aspirations of potential recruits.

Similarly, the importance of feedback and iterative improvement was a recurring theme in three essays. One such submission championed the idea of establishing channels for recruits and recruiters to voice their experiences. This feedback, coupled with evidence-based evaluation, can ensure recruitment strategies remain both effective and relevant. The recruiting enterprise can be a data-rich environment, and it is important to maximize what we can learn from it. Structured feedback mechanisms must be firmly established, with an emphasis on consistently collecting, analyzing, and integrating feedback into the recruitment process, ensuring strategies are always aligned with the changing needs and aspirations of the modern recruit.

The United States, and especially the US Army, stands at a waypoint in its recruitment journey. The challenges faced in recent years underscore the pressing need for a comprehensive overhaul of its recruitment strategies. As the United States’ social, political, and economic systems evolve, so too must the Army’s approach to attracting the best and brightest to its ranks. The essays submitted in response to MWI and TRADOC’s prompt have illuminated a rich tapestry of insights, strategies, and innovative solutions. They emphasize the importance of modern communication channels and the need to diversify recruitment approaches.

The Army’s recent announcements, including the shift toward recruiting more individuals with more advanced education and the introduction of specialized talent acquisition teams, are promising steps in the right direction. The journey doesn’t end here, but perhaps that is where it starts. The wealth of ideas presented in the essay competition serves as a testament to the collective wisdom and commitment of both military and civilian thinkers. Although only three winners were selected, our judges read all submissions carefully, and appreciated the view that these submissions provided in aggregate. Submissions not selected provide a collective azimuth to guide recruiting efforts into the future. Thanks to those who submitted.

As the Army embarks on this transformative journey, it must remain open to these diverse perspectives, ensuring that its recruitment strategies not only are effective but also resonate with the aspirations and values of the next generation. The future of the US Army, and by extension the nation’s security, hinges on its ability to adapt, innovate, and inspire.

Zachary Griffiths is a major in the United States Army and the director of the Harding Project to renew professional military writing.

Laura Keenan is a lieutenant colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard. She is a United States Military Academy graduate and a distinguished graduate of the National War College. In her civilian career, she has worked at LinkedIn for almost seven years in sales and employer branding.

Max Margulies is an assistant professor and director of research at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Special thanks to Lieutenant Colonel TJ Spolizino, Lieutenant Colonel Adriana Ramirez-Scott, and Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Pallas for reviewing essays.

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: Sgt. Jared Simmons, US Army