The Army conducted an aerial assault on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs last week as recruiters battle to overcome the biggest shortfall in 14 years.
The college effort was part of a campaign that’s putting more recruiters on the streets and offering bigger enlistment bonuses after the service came in 20,000 recruits below its goals for the active-duty Army and its Reserve and National Guard components in the fiscal year that ended October 1.
Capt. Wes Barber, who oversees Army recruiters in Colorado Springs, said new outreach plans are showing promise even as the Army faces conditions that make recruiters cringe — rising wages and historically low unemployment.
“We’re doing OK,” he said, while standing next to an attention-grabbing UH-60 helicopter flown into the center of the UCCS campus. A small number of students gathered around in the early going with more expected later.
The recruiting crisis has had an impact in the ranks, with soldiers from Fort Carson to the Colorado National Guard complaining that units are undermanned.
Experts remain worried that the Army could face another tough year in 2019 as the service lacks a luster for high-tech millennials who are drawn to the higher pay and more flexible lifestyle found in the civilian world.
“They need to admit that military service isn’t very attractive at the moment,” said Tim Nichols, who teaches counterterrorism and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.
Booming economies have traditionally made it hard to fill Army ranks. From the dot-com boom of the 1990s to the real estate bubble years of the mid-2000s, the Army doesn’t get as many young people signing up when jobs elsewhere offer lucrative alternatives.
And recruiting for the all-volunteer Army is tougher in wartime when parents are more likely to counsel their children against taking the risks that accompany serving in uniform.
The Army has ruled out its go-to solution for recruiting woes. At the height of the Iraq war in 2005, when Army recruiting had similar shortfalls to those seen today, recruiters got to lower standards, taking in recruits who would otherwise be deemed undereducated, overweight or morally unfit.
Those high standards are what drew Barber and his crew to UCCS.
“We’re looking for high school graduates, especially those who want to get out of student debt,” he said.
The average college student who graduated in 2018 carried more than $30,000 in loans. Barber was offering bonuses of up to $40,000 and the GI Bill to undergraduates worried about their financial futures.
The bonuses and tuition help are part of a program that is recommended by retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who heads Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense in Washington.
Spoehr said the Army must “offer more incentives, not necessarily monetary, for people to enter service.”
For the Army, bonuses are a huge drawing card. The average soldier signing up can count on putting at least $10,000 in the bank if they can ship out quickly enough.
Those headed for highly technical fields, like code-breaking, can get even more cash.
The Army has also changed how soldiers can save for the future, with 401k-like retirement plans augmenting old offerings that required troops to spend 20 years in uniform.
But those changes might not be enough for the Army to catch the eye of the latest generation.
“One thing we need to realize is that American youth is changing, and the military changes much more slowly,” Nichols said.
Recruiting is actually a relatively recent problem for the modern American military. From World War I through Vietnam, the Army’s ranks were filled out with draftees.
America’s last draft was in 1973. It’s end brought immediate recruiting problems. Some of the early efforts to recruit and retain troops in the 1970s seem comical. Fort Carson in those days brought in beer vending machines and topless dancers to entice volunteers.
Since then, the Army built a sophisticated marketing effort that highlights college benefits, bonuses and personal growth. It has mostly worked, with a few notable exceptions.
But some worry that those techniques may also be outdated.
The youths of today do have a bent for helping others, but may not see the Army as the right tool, Nichols said. And this generation had its first exposure to technology in the crib and may not be willing to trade that passion in for a rifle, he warned.
The service formed a professional video gaming team last year, and even released a hip-hop music video.
And its latest push is sending recruiters into America’s hippest cities, with Seattle and Los Angeles hitting that list alongside Denver.
That move could pay off Nichols said.
“It depends whether hipsters decide the Army is cool,” Nichols said.
Spoehr said the service must “empower more national spokespersons on the virtue of public service.”
Barber said recruiters are more optimistic this spring,
but admitted there hasn’t been a stampede of recruits.
“Trying to get the word out is difficult,” Barber said of the Army’s latest bonus programs.
But there is one thing almost certainly coming that will help the Army fill its ranks: a changing economic cycle.
While good economic times have traditionally slowed recruiting, recessions have always boosted Army ranks, Nichols said.
It’s a hard job, but it brings a steady paycheck.
“In bad economies, the Army is a lot more attractive,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx