Graduating recruits stand in formation at the U.S. Navy's Recruit Training Command in 2019.

Graduating recruits stand in formation at the U.S. Navy's Recruit Training Command in 2019. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling

Stop Holding Recruits to One-Size-Fits-All Standards

Yesterday’s approach won’t solve today’s recruiting crisis—or win tomorrow’s wars.

If the U.S. military is to attract highly tech-skilled recruits for modern warfare, its recruiting philosophies must evolve. “We need data scientists, coders and engineers as much as we need pilots, submariners and infantry,” the secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Navy wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. But they are still recruiting under the old vision that every soldier needs to have the physical abilities of a frontline infantryman.

The services need to let go of this antiquated requirement; they must also consider what billets can be better filled by Defense Department civilians.

What does the force actually need?

The all-volunteer force of the last 50 years has been able to be selective and set stringent, uniform requirements. There are clear needs for some of these. Pilots must have good eyesight, sailors must be physically able to perform damage control, and so on. However, many of these requirements are more culturally imbued, and limit eligibility to serve. Recent articles have highlighted that only 23% of Americans meet the minimum eligibility requirements to serve due to poor physical fitness, medical disqualification, education, and criminal history. Initiatives to increase the pool of availability are underway across each service. The Air Force and Space Force are allowing waivers for candidates who test positive for THC. The Army’s Future Soldiers Program provides opportunities to those who would not pass the physical or educational requirements. And the Navy raised the maximum enlistment age to 41 years old and is accepting lower scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The above initiatives by each service are meant to expand that 23% eligibility, but they are still recruiting along the same uniform standards for frontline warfighting jobs. A soldier who was not academically qualified to serve isn’t going to be filling one of the data-scientist roles the Secretaries mentioned. These initiatives may eventually fill recruiters’ quotas, but they won’t answer the services’ critical needs.

Opportunity lies in the untapped potential of those otherwise not qualified to serve. A senior official in the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate recently explained that there are different entry and training requirements for the different services in his country. A paratrooper or infantry soldier, for example, would understandably have more stringent physical requirements than a cyber warrior or administration worker, but their accession training would also be significantly different. Israel is a leader in this arena, having special units dedicated to training soldiers with mental or physical disabilities who are able to perform valuable roles in their military. If the U.S. military were to invest in such a program, there would not only be a public relations and recruiting windfall, but more importantly it would allow talented people to fill crucial billets.

Does that billet need a uniform?

As the services build today’s force, they should also ask the tough question of whether some of positions need to be uniformed personnel. Personnel specialists, financial managers, scientists, research engineers, hospital administrators, and social workers are critical to the success of the military. However, these roles can be equally well done by military civilians. The recruiting shortfall across the military services may simply exist because there are too many billets that do not require a uniformed military member.

Converting billets to civilian jobs is just the first step. Attracting qualified candidates is the next. The services should consider setting up a program that pays civilians’ way through college programs to develop the necessary skills, with a commitment to serve upon graduation out of uniform. This is essentially, the model that the service academies use, but for high-tech and other administrative billets, and without the physical or medical requirements that might otherwise keep these people out of the service academies or the military.

Other changes that might make military service more attractive are limits to permanent change-of-station moves, expanding incentives for employers to hire military spouses, and increasing the portability of state licenses for spouses who must move with their partners. These incentives should be expanded to spouses of all serving in the critical roles, not just uniformed service members.

All of these changes are certainly possible in the U.S. military. The greatest obstacle to this would be the inertia of the services, the feeling that all troops must receive the same training and meet the same physical standards. To enact these changes, leaders and the general public must put aside the image of the perfect soldier in favor of the right soldier, and provide similar opportunities to all who serve in our country’s defense—in and out of uniform. 

Recruiting the homefront

The service secretaries’ request also alludes to a larger recruiting problem. Generation Z is now reaching the age of military entry, and despite a myriad of social influencers, parents and guardians continue to play the most crucial role in shaping the attitudes of young Americans around kitchen tables across the country. Yet many parents are indifferent or uninformed about today’s military and only 48 percent of Americans even trust the military, historically one of the country’s most trusted professions.

Introducing parents to the merits and benefits of military service would reenergize a powerful passive recruiting tool that could yield a new segment of young American’s who had not considered serving. Programs such as JROTC, Civil Air Patrol, and the Naval Sea Cadet Corps provide a tangible outlet that parents can see and touch to help them understand the modern-day military and in turn talk candidly to their children about the merits of serving. Adding a focus on STEM and computing to these programs could help attract college bound students into the armed forces who would not have considered serving due to the commonly held notion that every servicemember is destined for frontline combat.

The military needs warfighters, but for the near-to-medium term, it also needs supporting roles, technology experts, and scientists. However, in order to attract them, the military must update our standards and provide the opportunity to serve to those who want to, and the desire to serve for those who have necessary skills. Whether they are in uniform or not, if the military doesn’t attract these data scientists, engineers, and coders, it will continue to fall short of its recruiting goals, and more crucially, of its actual needs.

Lt. Cmdr. Stewart Latwin is the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Lt. Col. Ernest Cage is an Air University Senior Defense Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense.