Getting Back to 'Be All You Can Be': How the Failure of Military Transition Impacts Accession and Retention
The state of the all volunteer force is not well. In 2018, the army failed to meet recruiting objectives for the first time in 13 years. According to RAND, almost 60 percent of service academy graduates and 51 percent of ROTC graduates resign their commissions after their initial service commitment. Also, let's not forget that today's service members and their families have endured the burdens and sacrifices of combat for nearly two decades. Given these challenges, the military will struggle just to maintain its ranks let alone expand them to meet the manning objectives prescribed in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
Whenever manpower becomes an issue, the military defers to their tried and true playbook for accession and retention. This means more recruiters and larger recruiting budgets. It means bigger retention bonuses. It means more of the same talking points about the challenge of competing in a vibrant job market and the lack of qualified candidates between ages 17 and 24 for military service. As a result, we are going to spend a lot of money and exert a tremendous amount of effort to attract and maintain the one percent of volunteers we rely upon to serve on active duty and maintain our security. Given the high costs and marginal benefits of this approach, maybe it's time we found a new playbook.
When it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent to serve in the Armed Forces, we need to start looking for creative solutions in unsuspecting places. Instead of striving to capture that one percent that actually serves, how do we widen the aperture to entice the entire 29 percent of qualified candidates for military service? Instead of scrutinizing the quality of the military recruit, it might be time to showcase the quality of our veterans. Maybe we need to stop paying so much attention to how people come into the service and start paying more attention to their success after they leave.
The Real Reasons Why Recruiting Struggles
The numbers simply don't support the usual talking points about recruiting challenges. During the height of the Cold War, we had 2.2 million active duty service members from a population of 237 million people. In 2017, the size of the active duty component was 1.3 million from a population of nearly 330 million. Even if fewer citizens are qualified for military service than were 30 years ago, we reduced the size of the active force by about half and increased the population by almost a third. Given those numbers, we should not be struggling to find willing and capable volunteers.
The changing demographic of our veteran population also has significant implications to our current recruiting strategies. Military service has historically been tied to family heritage. Parents who serve have children who serve. Unfortunately, veterans comprise only 6 percent of our current population (20 million veterans out of 330 million people). The VA projects that this population will shrink by an additional 33 percent to 13.6 million veterans over the next two decades. More importantly, fewer veterans are recommending military service to their children. In the 1990's, 80 percent of parents who served in the military would recommend military service to their children, but by 2017, only 40 percent of families would offer that same recommendation. Fewer families are connected to military service, and of those that are, fewer are encouraging that path for their children.
Because fewer people have first-hand knowledge of what it means to serve in the military, people rely on the narrative about military service provided through the media, entertainment, and non-profit organizations. Doing your 22 pushups to create 'awareness' not only feeds the suicide contagion, but it contributes to negative stereotypes without providing the full context of what it means to be a soldier or veteran. Most - if not all - veteran characters portrayed in television and movies are characterized as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental health issue. When you combine that with the onslaught of billboards, advertisements, and social media campaigns from thousands of non-profits who highlight suffering for revenue generation, what impression would you expect non-veterans to have about the veteran community?
Instead of a narrative of leadership and inspiration, we have a narrative that evokes sympathy or - even worse - pity.
This commentary is not a blanket criticism of non-profits. Plenty of organizations provide meaningful service and support to thousands of veterans, but how often do you hear the other stories about veterans who thrive as leaders in society? Consider the example of Mike Erwin - a former army officer and founder of Team Red White and Blue who created the Positivity Project to nurture the character and leadership development of students across the country. Consider the example of Dean Wegner, West Point graduate and former helicopter pilot who founded Authentically American - a startup with a unique value proposition to create jobs and challenge the status quo in the apparel industry. Add in the doctors, engineers, business leaders, authors, and community leaders that make a difference across our society, and you'll discover that there are plenty of examples of former military leaders who've made an even greater impact as veterans. We simply choose not to recognize or celebrate them.
The Connection Between Transition and Accession - The Harvard Standard
In order to recapture the message and achieve manning objectives with the most qualified recruits, perhaps the military needs to calibrate its accession programs to match the strategies of the most prestigious universities. Although the qualities for the ideal soldier are not necessarily the same qualities sought for a new student for a school like Harvard, both institutions compete in a market based on their definition of the elite candidate. Like the military, Harvard targets a relatively small population for admission, but unlike the military, they don't have any problems attracting candidates with the highest potential for success.
One of the ways in which Harvard differs from the military is how they prepare and posture their students for life after graduation. It starts with their mission to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. Their mission extends beyond graduation. The journey only begins at Harvard but ends by making a meaningful impact in society. Harvard graduates have a reputation for attaining the most lucrative and challenging opportunities for lifelong success and fulfillment, and consequently, the quality and volume of applicants is not an issue. In fact, Harvard's admission rate for 2018 was less than 5 percent.
With $310 million allocated for unemployment compensation (in 2017) against $100 million for transition assistance, is it possible that we're spending more for unemployment than we do for transition assistance?
Like Harvard, our military is considered the best at what it does around the world. Unlike Harvard, the military doesn't set the conditions for success when you leave. In order to prove this point, you only need to follow the money. The DoD and the VA combine to spend $160 million on the transition assistance program ($100 million from the DoD and $60 million from the VA according to this report). When you consider that nearly 200,000 service members separate from active duty each year, that comes out to approximately $800 per transitioning service member. That's it. The fact that it costs over 20 times more to recruit a single active duty member than it does to transition an active duty member speaks to lack of focus and failure to address the importance of military transition.
To better understand the connection between transition and accession, you only need to consider the implications to Harvard admissions if everything that characterized the veteran population applied to Harvard graduates. Imagine if Harvard graduates had to attain additional accreditations to validate their education in the same way veterans need accreditations to validate their military training. Imagine if headhunters and recruiters told Harvard graduates that they were not on-par with their non-Harvard contemporaries and had to "take a step back" and "manage expectations" when seeking employment. Imagine if the only information non-Harvard graduates had of the Harvard graduate was through tearful stories of suffering and solicitations for charity. If you were to imagine all of these implications, how many people do you think would apply to Harvard each year?
Reframing Our Approach to Military Transition and Civilian Reintegration
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that the way to solve the manpower problem in the military is to improve programs that enable greater success outside the military, but that might be the best way to attract the best candidates for military service. Universities have been doing it for decades, and they tend to be more selective in the admissions process. We have to remember that even after a 20 year career, most veterans will spend a larger percentage of their working lives in the civilian sector than they will in the military. Instead of focusing on how we bring men and women into the military, it might be time to spend more time focusing on how they leave.
This isn't a cost issue. It's a national security one. Alternatives to the current programs of transition assistance already exist. An Integrative Program of Transition provides a comprehensive approach to personal growth through transition and beyond. The greatest challenges facing service members leaving the military is a combination of identity and purpose. Service members don't know who they want to be when they can't be the soldier, and they don't recognize their mission statement and intent for what happens after the military. Perhaps if we start showcasing how military leaders can become even more impactful leaders beyond the military, we might address the manning concern before it becomes a national security concern.
The old strategies of recruiting from families and communities rich in military heritage won't work for much longer. Those wells are already running dry. Instead of striving to entice the one percent of qualified candidates for military service, let's set our intention to make military service worth the consideration for the entire 29 percent of eligible candidates. Let's raise the bar for enlistment. To do this, we don't need more recruiters. We need more examples of veteran leaders contributing to and succeeding in society. Its time we got back to setting our veterans up to Be All They Can Be in the military and beyond.