A student records Lt. Col. Keith Benoit as he talks to students about his Army experience at McLean High School in McLean, Va., on May 11, 2023.

A student records Lt. Col. Keith Benoit as he talks to students about his Army experience at McLean High School in McLean, Va., on May 11, 2023. Army / Sgt. Jamie Robinson

Two ways to fix Army recruiting

Stop organizing its tasks geographically, and put our best people on it.

The Army can’t do anything about some of the many reasons for its recruiting crisis—but it can better organize its approach and do more to put the right people on the problem.

The Army has more than 40 recruiting battalions, each for a different geographical region. All are trained on the same recruitment toolkit, which mostly involves talking to recruits in person and helping them envision a path to independence and adulthood. But many young people aren’t seeking either of those, or even stable employment. They face anxiety from growing up at the height of the financial crisis, amid political division, and under the pandemic, and they seem to want support and approval from their social networks more than money for college or a guaranteed job after graduation. So showing up in uniform at a high school or a shopping mall and offering an Army career does little to persuade a young person to join. This is true, by the way, even if recruitment suffered because COVID took recruiters out of schools

In fact, the pandemic helped drive this generation to develop identity and community in virtual spaces, and the Army must now organize itself to meet them where they are. This suggests that the Army should develop engagement strategies with indirect focus beyond the recruit: family, friends, school leaders, and third-party social media influencers. Moreover, it suggests that the Army overhaul the structure of its recruiting command. Instead organizing around geography, Recruiting Command should reorient around line of effort in the digital ecosystem. If done correctly, restructuring from geographic to technological formations has the most potential for revolutionizing the Army approach to digital natives of this generation. 

During the COVID vaccination campaign, DoD realized that experts were not the best messengers to convince soldiers to get the shot. Having the “right” message wasn’t meaningful if it was delivered by an ineffectual messenger. The private sector reinforces this lesson. Over fifteen years ago, corporate brands paid bloggers to create content, which began modern influencer marketing. Influencers have both established credibility and an existing audience. Physical geography is barely relevant in that market. While the Army used influencer marketing during COVID, and has acknowledged that IT transcends borders in our fighting doctrine, we have yet to similarly modernize our recruiting formations. 

Regional recruiting battalions can be reorganized into functional areas, such as influencer marketing battalions with acquisition authorities to retain independent contractors paid a per-post fee or by click-through rate. These battalions would be responsible for calculating the return on investment of different influencer marketing campaigns, sentiment analysis to analyze audience engagement, assessing platform-specific key performance indicators, and continuously refining the message to the target audience in a way that is an agile supplement to a national television ad campaign. In this model, the target audience may have unique skills and attributes, or the ability to exert influence on those with skills to fill growing gaps in Army operations. A next-gen recruiting battalion might have a specific, dedicated focus on multi-domain operations (similar to medical), targeting young people with a demonstrated digital interest in cyber, who haven’t yet shown an interest in the Army. Other battalions might excel at family education, or high school administration battalions that work with educators and their own social media platforms and digital programming. Cross-functional teams can work together across battalions to meet recruitment goals.

Find better leaders 

No functional reorganization can succeed without putting the right people in charge of modern recruiting battalions. Service leaders should start by making command of a recruiting battalion more attractive to excellent officers. It is widely believed—and indeed, statistics show—that officers whose first command is of a recruiting battalion are not as competitive for promotion or advancement as those who lead combat formations. The Army faced a similar problem when it established Security Force Assistance Brigades: the notion that leading an SFAB might be somehow less prestigious than being selected for tactical battalion command. So the service decided to reserve SFABs for second-time commanders, officers who had already excelled in commanding a tactical formation. If it did the same for recruiting battalions, the Army would automatically attract a higher caliber of officer to this vital mission. It would also create strategic leaders and future general officers with a deeper understanding of recruitment challenges. 

Additionally, the Professor of Military Science position should count as a key development command position, making the PMS eligible for follow-on command of a recruiting battalion. ROTC programs are on the front lines of recruiting and retention, and PMS’s spend their time and focus communicating with high school students, parents, and faculty. Recognizing the experience our ROTC cadre gain from inspiring, educating, training, and selecting students to become Army officers will allow the Army to leverage the skills and abilities of leaders with existing knowledge and experience translating the Army to civilians. 

A functional reorganization of Army recruitment may require reducing the number of O-5 regional recruitment commands to optimize the creation of formations task-organized for digital purpose. Necessarily, this reduction aligns with the SFAB battalion commander selection model, and the opportunity for a PMS to lead a recruitment battalion as a follow-on assignment. Fewer eligible commanders will fill fewer battalions with different mission focus than the current geographic structure. 

Lt. Col. Adam A. Scher is the Professor of Military Science at Seton Hall University.  His recent prior assignments include serving as Military Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, executive officer to the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense for COVID, and White House Fellow in the Office of Management and Budget. The opinions in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.