One casualty of the tight job market: U.S. Army recruitment

By Aimee Picchi

/ MoneyWatch

The U.S. Army's slogan — "Warriors Wanted" — is taking on an added layer of meaning amid a historically tight job market. Young Americans have more employment options than in previous generations, prompting the army to lower its recruitment goal this year and overhaul its outreach efforts.

"The only way to remain competitive in that 3.6% unemployment [arena] is to be just as fast as Google, just as fast as Amazon," Major General Frank Muth told CBS MoneyWatch. "You have to have the agility to change rapidly, to adjust to the environment."

While Army leaders say they will meet a current goal of recruiting 68,000 new active duty soldiers by the end of September, that's still a shave from the previous year, when the Army aimed to recruit 76,500 new soldiers but fell short by 6,500 people.

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The U.S. Army touts benefits such as room, board and health care, but new enlistees make just $20,000 a year. Meantime, as the U.S. unemployment rate has bounced between 3.6% to 4% this year, some employers are boosting wages to attract hires and 29 states have increased their minimum wages.

In short, young Americans — including those without college degrees — have more options than in previous decades.

The tightening job market prompted the U.S. Army to modernize its approach. It started by looking at the differences between Generation Z and earlier generations, Muth said.

The oldest members of Gen Z, the group of Americans born after the millennials, are now in their early 20s and are a prime age group for recruitment. But the Army found that traditional methods of outreach weren't working as effectively as before.

"They are not watching TV," Muth added. "They are utterly on the digital plane."

Gen Z differences

As part of its recruitment overhaul, the Army is now turning to apps such as Instagram and Facebook, while also creating an esports team that competes in esports competitions. A culture of esports in the Army made that a natural fit, Muth noted, and so team members compete in Army uniforms and answer questions that potential recruits may have about life in the military.

"We have reversed our marketing dollars," Muth noted. "It was 90% TV, 10% digital. It's completely reversed now."

The issues facing the U.S. Army go deeper than the tight labor market, however. Only 7 in 10 young Americans qualify to enlist, according to a 2018 report from the Heritage Foundation that cited Pentagon data. The chief causes for ineligibility are health problems and physical fitness.

"We do find that the generation we're seeing now, they do come in a little heavier but they are bigger overall," he said. "The question would come down to if they are allowed 24% body fat, would you allow them to come in 1% to 2% over knowing they will go to basic training … and get down to 24% to 23% body fat. We are always considering things like that."

Even so, the Army is focused on quality over quantity, Muth insisted, pointing to a fewer number of waivers issued to enlistees compared with the prior year. Waivers are granted for issues such as having a GED instead of a high school diploma.

"The model we put into the place is now sustainable into the future," Muth said.

First published on September 18, 2019 / 4:55 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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