CHICAGO — Army recruiters who are struggling to meet hiring targets say one of their biggest hurdles is getting into high schools, where they can meet students one-on-one. But they recently received a boost from a recruiting advocate the school leaders couldn’t turn down: the secretary of the army.
During three consecutive meetings across Chicago last month, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth spoke to students, school principals, college administrators, recruiters and a range of young people involved in ROTC or junior ROTC programs. She kept asking what the Bundeswehr could do to reach young people better and sell themselves as a good career choice.
In blunt sessions, their recruiters said they needed more and better access to high school students. But they also said the atmosphere can sometimes be unfriendly – or worse – with principals, many of whom are skeptical that the Army offers their students a good career option. “I’m going to use the word hostile,” one recruiter told her. “There is no other word.”
It is not uncommon for the Army’s top civilian to tour the country, spreading the Army’s message and checking on recruitment progress. But the trip to Chicago followed the Army’s worst recruiting year in recent history, when it fell 25% short of its target of 60,000 recruits. It’s up to Wormuth and other army leaders to find creative new ways to attract recruits and ensure the service has the troops it needs to defend the nation.
All military services struggle to compete for young people in a tight labor market where private companies are often willing to offer better wages and benefits. Two years of the coronavirus pandemic have denied recruiters access to public events and schools where they could find prospects. And it’s estimated that only 23% of young people can meet the military’s fitness, educational and moral standards, with many being disqualified on grounds ranging from medical problems to criminal records and tattoos.
Army leaders say their polls show young people don’t see the army as their first career choice, often because they don’t want to die or get injured, deal with the stresses of military life, or put their lives on hold.
What Wormuth heard in their Chicago sessions was a litany of challenges, from the issue of school access and competition with colleges to confusing army websites, limited social media, and a general lack of public knowledge about the jobs and opportunities that military service can provide.
In a meeting with Pedro Martinez, executive director of Chicago public schools, Wormuth noted the frustration of recruiters and urged answers on how to fix things.
Martinez agreed that when recruiters try to work with individual schools and a new recruiter comes along or a consultant leaves, “there’s not always a warm handoff.” He suggested working with the central district office instead.
Wormuth waved to Lt. Col. Shane Doolan, commander of the Chicago Recruiting Battalion, and asked if the team was getting along well with headquarters.
“No, we really don’t have a relationship. And that’s what we’re working on here,” Doolan replied, adding that two years of COVID-19 restrictions have hampered those efforts. He also said recruiters found a lack of understanding of the army.
Doolan and other recruiters told Wormuth they face opposition from teachers’ unions and school board members who see no value in offering students the military as a career option. In some cases, school officials view the military through the lens of the post-Vietnam era.
Martinez and other school officials acknowledged there is a knowledge gap, but added that principals and counselors are cautious about who gets access to their schools and students for security reasons.
They also warned that a recruiter who is good at speaking to students may not be as prepared to deal with principals. Recruiters, they said, must be able to explain the benefits of military service to those serving as gatekeepers to students.
Access to school is not the only hurdle.
In discussions with university leaders, Wormuth emphasized that the Bundeswehr should not be seen as a competitor for young people.
“The Army faces a recruitment challenge. That’s what brought me here,” Wormuth told a large group of college presidents and leaders at the University of Illinois Chicago. But, she added, “It doesn’t have to be a choice between the army and college for kids. Some kids benefit from having a little time to do something else.”
In some cases, she said, soldiers return to college after duty or while they continue to serve, better prepared to be good students.
The students brought their own views.
In small sessions with members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and Junior ROTC, the students revealed the gaps the Army must bridge to attract others in their generation. They said young people are unaware of the benefits of military service, which include a wide range of career choices or free college tuition. They said students have little contact with military personnel and for every positive mention of the military or army online there are five negative ones.
Gathered around tables and in their uniforms, they spoke enthusiastically about their ROTC experiences: the camaraderie, the support, the leadership they get, and the trust they inspire.
But all too often, they said, their friends question their decisions and, as one put it, “assume I’m going to war.” Some noted that their parents were sometimes reluctant and worried about their safety.
In a crowded classroom at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Wormuth was confronted with these perceptions. Young students showered her with questions about sexual assault in the army, homeless veterans and the military’s involvement in race riots after the police killing of George Floyd.
After three days crammed with such meetings, Wormuth flew home and said the questions from the Whitney Young students, along with similar issues raised in other meetings, reinforce the need for the military to solve some of its tougher problems.
“They asked about sexual harassment. They asked will they be safe? They asked about barracks and wanted to know what the benefits are,” says Wormuth. “For me, this underlines how important it is that we find ways to solve these problems. These are real issues and the market research we’ve done supports them.”
She said she and General James McConville, the Army Chief of Staff, recognize it will take time to rectify the recruitment shortage.
“I don’t think we’re going to bring our recruiting numbers down to levels that General McConville and I would be comfortable with in a year,” she said.
Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, head of the Army Recruiting Command, said some new incentive programs are already working and recruitment numbers in recent months are higher than last year.
Army leaders are pinning their hopes on a new ad campaign starting this week that brings back a tried-and-true Army slogan from the 1980s: “Be all you can be.”
In the Whitney Young auditorium, Wormuth said the slogan spoke to the diversity of careers the Army offers.
“If programming is your thing, we have a place for you in the Army,” she told students. “If you like jumping out of planes or helicopters, or prefer to fly them, you can become an aviator or you can become a fighter in the US Army. If you want to speak different languages and travel the world, you could become a linguist or a foreign affairs expert in the army. “
And, she added, if hip-hop is your passion, you can become an army rapper since two singers just joined army rapper band.
“People remember people who take risks and try to do something that serves something bigger than themselves,” she told classes. “People remember those who chose to be everything they could be.”
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth is welcomed to the Chicago Military Academy February 15, 2023 as she departs for meetings with junior members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in Chicago. Army recruiters are struggling to meet hiring targets, and they say one of their biggest hurdles is getting back into high schools so they can meet students one-on-one. During three consecutive meetings across Chicago over the past month, Wormuth met with students, school leaders, college leaders, recruiters and a range of young people involved in ROTC or JROTC programs. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth delivers a speech at an Army recruiting expo after speaking to students at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago February 14, 2023. Army recruiters are struggling to meet hiring targets, and they say one of their biggest hurdles is getting back into high schools so they can meet students one-on-one. During three consecutive meetings across Chicago over the past month, Wormuth met with students, school leaders, college leaders, recruiters and a range of young people involved in ROTC or JROTC programs. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth speaks with members of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the Chicago Military Academy on February 15, 2023 in Chicago. Army recruiters are struggling to meet hiring targets, and they say one of their biggest hurdles is getting back into high schools so they can meet students one-on-one. During three consecutive meetings across Chicago over the past month, Wormuth met with students, school leaders, college leaders, recruiters and a range of young people involved in ROTC or JROTC programs. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)