"I can’t think of a private employer who needs 80,000 new people a year," says Eileen Levitt, chief executive of the HR Team, a human resources consulting company in Columbia, Maryland. "And the Army has another hiring problem: Most companies’ employees are worried about losing their jobs, not getting their heads blown off."
The challenge faced by the U.S. Army is an unenviable one--and why private-sector employers can learn from the Army’s approach to solving its manpower crisis.
That situation is dire. Despite spending nearly $1.3 billion last year on the effort, the Army is well below its recruiting goals.
The chairman of the House subcommittee on military personnel, Rep. John McHugh, R-New York, said at a hearing that the active-duty Army would likely miss its recruiting goal of 80,000 by as many as 7,000 soldiers when fiscal 2005 ended Sept. 30. The actual number turned out to be 6,627. National Guard units met only 80 percent of their goal. The Marine Corps, however, came in at 102 percent of its recruitment goal.
Though no one dismisses the enormity of the Army’s recruiting woes, the organization is credited with developing innovative methods to close its recruiting gap, solutions that can be emulated in some form by the private sector. These programs include advertising and public outreach campaigns (the Army spent $177 million on its ad campaign last year), better education benefits and public-private partnerships that enable soldiers to move straight into new careers after their military service.
The Army isn’t the only big employer with recruiting worries. While job creation overall has been weak to moderate over the past year, as the economy strengthens, the National Association of Manufacturers found in a recent poll that 36 percent of its members have unfilled positions because they cannot find workers with the right skills and qualifications.
The trucking industry is short about 20,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Association. In Houston, Genesis Crude Oil continually advertises for drivers, and pays cash bonuses to employees who refer new drivers to the company. Experienced welders are in such short supply that the Manitowoc Crane Group in Wisconsin had been compelled to offer on-site training for those interested in the job.
A shortage of plumbers forces companies like Mr. Rooter Plumbing in Pleasant Valley, New York, to recruit talent in places such as South Africa and Venezuela, and then apply for permission for them to emigrate.
Bigger problems may loom. Though there is considerable debate about whether a labor shortage is imminent, no one argues that employers won’t face considerable recruiting and hiring challenges in the coming years because of changing demographics, labor supply trends and other factors.
In an A.C. Nielsen survey commissioned by Advanced Technology Services, a factory automation firm in Peoria, Illinois, a third of major U.S. manufacturers predicted that they will have to spend $100 million apiece in recruiting and training costs over the next five years to overcome worker shortages.
But few private employers face anything quite as daunting as the Army’s recruiting challenges. Each year, the Army must recruit more new soldiers than the entire 63,000-employee workforce of a company like telecommunications giant BellSouth, or nearly as many as the 82,500 employed by aluminum products manufacturer Alcan.
And the Army must recruit those soldiers from a fairly narrow segment of the U.S. population. Though there are more than 9 million American males in their late teens and early 20s, only one in three fit the Army’s requirements, which include a high school degree and a clean bill of physical and mental health.
To locate qualified recruits, the Army uses extensive market research and surveys--much of it by outside contractors--and a sophisticated electronic system for identifying, evaluating and following up on leads. Television and print ads and other promotional tools direct possible recruits to a central Web site, GoArmy.com, where they can participate in chat room conversations with Army recruiters.
"The financial incentives, such as the college money, have to be adjuncts. ... The reality is that while we have to remain at least competitive, we’re never going to be able to pay as much as the private sector."
--U.S. Army Maj. Gen.
Michael D. Rochelle
(Rochelle left the Recruitment Command this month to become head of the Army Installation Management Agency. The organization is in charge of managing U.S. Army bases worldwide. His replacement is Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, who served as commander of the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq.)
Advertising and the Web sites generate about 750,000 potential raw leads a year, Rochelle says. Those leads are funneled to the Recruiting Command’s refinement center, which will winnow down the number to those who have an 80 percent or greater chance of becoming an enlistee, based upon studies of successful recruiting.
"It’s clearly not a talent shortage," Rochelle says. "There are more than enough well-qualified young men and women out there to fill the Army’s needs."
Not about the money
To entice those qualified candidates, the Army recently enhanced its financial package. In addition to the standard enlistment bonus of $20,000, soldiers who sign up for high-priority units, such as infantry, can receive up to $400 a month in incentive pay. College funding also has been increased, from $50,000 to $70,000 for each recruit.
Nevertheless, "the financial incentives, such as the college money, have to be adjuncts," Rochelle says. "We can’t get started down a slippery slope where we’re depending on money to lure people in. The reality is that while we have to remain at least competitive, we’re never going to be able to pay as much as the private sector."
Rochelle says attitudinal research shows that the "Millennium Generation"--the term used by demographers for people born in the mid-1980s and after--actually tends to be quite receptive to the Army’s message. "The idea that being a soldier strengthens you for today and for tomorrow, for whatever you go on to do in life, that clearly resonates with them," he says.
But another characteristic of "Millennials" is that they also frequently depend upon advice from parents and other adults with a prominent role in their lives. And many of those "influencers" have been dissuading young people from enlisting.
Some influencers are motivated by fear that young people will be killed or injured in Iraq. Rochelle admits that he can’t do much to assuage public disillusionment with the conflict.
"We’re in the middle of a prolonged war that is claiming lives of brave young Americans and causing injuries," he says. "No one likes to see that, least of all another soldier. But that’s the reality." As a result, he must depend upon Millennials’ sense of national duty, even if it means putting their lives on the line for a cause they have qualms about.
In recent years, Rochelle has also focused on the influencers’ second point of resistance--the belief that other options, such as going directly to college or taking an entry-level job, offer surer routes to adult success. Rochelle developed a partnership with the Military Officers Association of America, a group of retired service members, and persuaded them to go out into their local communities to speak to influencers. He recently began setting up town hall meetings throughout the nation that may be televised or broadcast on local radio.
"We need to take this dialogue to another level," Rochelle says, "and tear down some of the perceptions that the media and critics have created"--that over-aggressive Army recruiters are out to exploit young people’s naiveté with promises of lavish benefits and a sugarcoated depiction of military service.
Instead, he says, it’s crucial to appeal to young people’s values--not just their sense of patriotism, but also their desire to better themselves and help their communities. For that reason, Rochelle is particularly excited about the Partnership for Youth Success program, which matches recruits with private- and public-sector employers they’d eventually like to work for and then develops their skills and guides their transition into the workforce after their service.
"When I was commander of a recruiting battalion in New England in the 1980s, I was doing battle on a daily basis with the employers in my area, who were providing opportunities that my recruiters were competing against," he says. "But this is a way to work together with them. You take the long-term view. Companies can’t hire everyone they may wish to hire today, so why not let us refine the product a bit and give this individual back to you in a few years--better trained, drug-free and instilled with strong values."
Employers participating in the program include defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, tractor manufacturer John Deere, Southwest Airlines and Dell Computer. Police departments in New York, Los Angeles and other cities also participate.
Experts say military recruiting problems could cut into employers’ supply of ex-soldiers with technical and leadership skills, as well as the security clearances needed to work on government contracts.
During his tenure, Rochelle had been determined to meet short-term recruiting goals, but acknowledged over the summer that it might not happen. Some of the Army’s recruiting shortfall has been made up by the re-enlistments of active-duty soldiers. The Army did indeed beat its goal of re-enlisting 64,000 soldiers–by 5,350.
But the fact remains that the Army fell several thousand soldiers short of its need going into fiscal 2006. If unabated, the shortfall could result in undermanned units that are unable to perform in a crisis, experts say.
"We need more privates"
While the Army technically is meeting its own overall goals for retention, it still has critical shortages in certain job categories, according to a May 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress. The GAO found that of the various occupational specialties within the Army, about 65 percent had too many soldiers, while 35 percent of the jobs didn’t have enough qualified personnel to fill all the vacancies.
Additionally, the Army’s personnel development system, which requires soldiers to move upward through the ranks or else leave the service, means that the Army can’t depend on older re-enlistees to fill all of its critical jobs.
"We need more privates than we do sergeants or captains," says Army spokesperson Maj. Elizabeth Robbins. "We’d like to keep more of our first-termers, and fewer of our second- and third-termers."
The shortage of new recruits has left the Army scrambling to cope. The GAO says the Army already has called up reservists and moved new recruits from its delayed-entry program into basic training earlier than scheduled.
Beth Asch, a senior economist specializing in military personnel at the Rand Corp., a think tank in a Santa Monica, California, says that if recruiting problems continue, the Army’s ability to perform its national security mission could be hindered. "Critical units will get filled, but certain units will be undermanned, and that will impact readiness," she says.
While Army recruiting woes present a possible national security problem, businesses should care about the situation too--and not just from a patriotic perspective. Experts say military recruiting problems could cut into employers’ supply of ex-soldiers with technical and leadership skills, as well as the security clearances needed to work on government contracts.
"Three to five years down the road, companies could really feel a negative impact," says Ted Daywalt, a former Navy captain who is now president and CEO of Vetjobs.com, a Web site that helps companies find former service members to fill jobs. "Companies could end up paying for a lot of the training that they now get for free because the military does it." The resulting cost could amount to tens of thousands of dollars per new employee, he says.
During his tenure, Rochelle motivated recruiters by reminding them of the impact of their efforts. "We’re recruiting soldiers to learn our values and then take them back into the community, where they can have impacts that are almost immeasurable," he says. "I draw the analogy with the years after World War II, when we demobilized millions of men quickly and then watched them go to college and change the country. That was like dropping a boulder in a lake."
Today, he says, it’s more like throwing pebbles into the water one or two at a time, but it still creates ripples.
Workforce Management, October 24, 2005, pp. 20-31 -- Subscribe Now!