Why nobody wants to join the Army this year

The military is currently behind its recruiting goals for this year by 23%
Staff Sgt. Robert Brown, a Papa Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion drill sergeant, tries to motivate his charges during the Soldier Stakes Competition May 14 at Williams Stadium. (U.S. Army)

The military is currently behind its recruiting goals for this year by 23%, a continuation of recruiting woes in which all branches of service seem to be throwing money at the challenge, but with the Army leading the way, unfortunately. The Department of Defense anticipates that a combined 150,000 service members from all branches will end their terms of service (ETS) each year. But in 2020 and 2021, that number was around 195,000, with 2022 appearing to follow the trend. Even Congress has expressed recruiting concerns for filling tomorrow’s military ranks. As Army officials have remained quiet on recruiting numbers while, at the same time, increasing bonuses, social media posts have noted that the Army remains well behind its goals for active duty enlistment. This fact is reflected in the near-term expected force shrinkage, which is currently being blamed on a tight labor market

As it stands now, 2022 is looking to be a year of high ETS numbers that will be exacerbated by significant failures in recruiting for the Army. Where has recruiting gone wrong? We see two major issues with the Army’s recruiting efforts, pertaining to its ad campaign and treatment of recruiters. Based on our research of the Army’s recruiting efforts, including feedback from the general population the Army is looking to enlist — 18 to 24-year-olds — the following is an assessment of the extant problems with recruitment, followed by a proposed solution:

1. Advertising and GoArmy.com

While the Army continues to advertise through broadcast and cable systems, internet sites, and social media, Army advertising lacks consistency and a strong message that resonates well with potential recruits. After decades of Be All You Can Be and 12 years of Army Strong success, the ads evolved yet again, this time to reach potential Gen Z recruits through campaigns like The Calling and What’s Your Warrior (WYW) themes.

The Calling was not well received, to put it mildly. YouTube comments were turned off after only a few days as the responses were overwhelmingly negative, and “dislikes” greatly outnumbered “likes.” Despite all this, as a campaign, The Calling did have noble intentions — to show where soldiers came from, their life challenges, their uncertainties, and how, through service in the Army, they overcame such obstacles. 

U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Alexis Chacon works as a hometown recruiter at the Zaragoza Recruiting Station, in El Paso, Texas, on June 11, 2018. (Maj. Brandon R. Mace / U.S. Army Reserve)

WYW aimed to surprise, using video-game style graphics to highlight different Army jobs that anyone can do. Ranging from logisticians to medical researchers, to combat arms, it presented these occupations in a user-friendly way and aimed to drive traffic to GoArmy.com for recruits to seek further information. Was it effective? According to the Army, the site saw significant increases in traffic to GoArmy.com year over year. But after conducting a pilot experiment with current college students on WYW in the fall of 2021, there was no evidence that it increased potential recruits’ intention to enlist. The experiment did, however, provide qualitative perspectives from users with respect to the ad such as “cool graphics, entertaining, good music, expansive job options, but failed to show the reality of Army life and made war out to be a video game — a bait and switch commercial that looked superficial.” 

The newest batch of advertisements debuted during the second week of April as Know Your Army (KYA). The new 15-second ads via YouTube have taken a significant turn in theme: gone are pride in service, selfless service, or even individual accomplishments. Instead, KYA focuses on benefits and highlighting U.S. corporations’ lack of support for their employees in comparison. Four of the five newest ads focus purely on these occupational benefits highlighting the VA home loan entitlement, parental leave, 30 days of vacation, and the golden 20-plus-years of service pension. A lone outlier video portrays camaraderie and friendship

But there are complications with these ads. The pension clip leads viewers to believe the retiree is enjoying retirement early — a movement known as Financial Independence, Retire Early, or FIRE) — after serving 20-plus years and does not have to deal with work phone calls as he’s always off duty. However, with most enlisted retirees leaving the military around the grade of E-6 (Staff Sergeant) through E-8 (Master Sergeant/First Sergeant), that retirement at 20 years is very unlikely to completely support FIRE. 

The VA loan ad promotes a strong benefit, but this extends to all branches of service. Furthermore, this benefit in the current housing market is not all it’s cracked up to be due to the additional inspections, appraisals, and red tape that are necessary for the loan to close. And many sellers today tend to forego VA or conventional loans for cash offers

The focus on parental leave deliberately draws a sharp contrast to the civilian job market in which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 23% of jobs provide this perk. While the Army generally grants parental leave to service members, in the authors’ experience, online comments from websites such as Reddit have noted that individual commands reserve the right to deem troops “mission essential,” and limit such leave. 

With the modern advertisements — WYW, The Calling, and KYA — the goal is no longer to get candidates to the recruiting office or call a number as it was in the past, but to visit www.GoArmy.com. The website aims to provide information and send leads to recruiters, but does an inadequate job of both. First, it is managed by an outside contractor that is not under the direct control of either U.S. Army Recruiting Command or the Army’s Advertising agency. However, according to comments from soldiers, veterans, and potential recruits on Reddit’s Army subreddit, the site is often incorrect or outdated, with many dead links, an issue that has affected other DoD websites. Additionally, bonuses could be perceived as a bait and switch, as they are presented as “up to $50,000,” but may in fact be significantly lower once it comes time to sign a contract. 

The site’s biggest challenge is explaining the pay and benefits shown in the newest ads. A chart showing the base pay for E-1 (Private) through E-6 (Staff Sergeant) from years 0-8 is available on the GoArmy.com website. However, it’s misleading because it fails to display promotion timelines, such as E-2 at 6 months, E-3 at 1 year, and E-4 at the 2-year mark (these are generally automatic promotions in the Army). Knowing the promotion timeline, it makes no sense to show an E-1 through E-3’s salary past the 2-year mark. Outside of base pay, allowances are mentioned briefly, but without any detail, which raises questions over these significant yet understated financial benefits.

For the pay comparison page, the Army chooses to use an E-5 (Sergeant) with 4 years in service with a family to compare to a civilian police officer — a job that often requires advanced education and varies greatly in terms of salary. The healthcare costs comparison at that rank is poignant, but includes a soldier with a spouse and two children. While this might entice a young married recruit, nearly 80% of recruits enter as single during their first enlistment and likely do not consider healthcare to be a priority. Furthermore, showing pay at 4 years for an E-5 leads back to the question of why the pay chart fails to show E-1 through E-4 advancements. 

Lastly, GoArmy.com has a link to “get in touch.” But this is not a simple “input your data and receive an email or number to text/call” process. A chat option exists, but functions sporadically at best. Sometimes it opens a chat window; other times users click it and get no response, thus creating a hurdle for Gen Z’s favorite way to engage. Another option is to call the 1-800 number, but let’s be frank: young people today would prefer a chat or text discussion over a verbal call

A third option for candidates is to select “contact a recruiter” and fill in some basic data (name, age, email, phone number) that then goes to a central processing site. No timeline is given for a response and in the authors’ test of the process, it took a week for a recruiter to reply. It’s unclear why in 2022 there is no immediate recruiting office information provided and such a lag between candidates’ information seeking efforts and an active response from the Army. 

In the end, the advertising appears to be a blended system, with an outside agency managing the ads, a separate contract for the website, while the recruiters are the syncing agents. But the messaging is confounded by ads of varying themes, a website that provides muddled data with delayed responses to inquiries, and leaves recruiters to work through the congestion. 

2. Not making mission? “Recruiters just need to work more”

As the Army’s agents for bringing in new soldiers, most recruiters complete their three-year rotations and then rotate back to a different job within the Army, while a small percentage of 79R (Military Occupational Skill) career recruiters remain in the position for the duration of their careers. The recruiter mission, as of 2022, is to ensure at least one recruit per recruiter per month enters the Army. This requires initial screening, entry paperwork, at least one visit to the Military Enlistment Processing Station (MEPS), submitting necessary medical and moral waivers, and having the recruit sign an enlistment contract.

While the one recruit per month requirement sounds minimal, there is no ability on the part of the recruiters to meet this quota of 12 recruits per year ahead of schedule. Thus, a recruiter can bring in five in one month and still need to sign at least one recruit per month for the rest of the year. This elicits two significant concerns — first is the strategy to spread recruits evenly throughout the year, and thus potentially cause a loss of interest by delaying a recruit’s contract. The recruiter may not want a “fat” month in case the following month or months are slow. But this coincides with the second point — recruiting will have dry months due to issues like school year schedules and seasonal population shifts common in agricultural and tourist communities. 

A drill sergeant watches over Basic Combat Training recruits at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. (Maj. Michelle Lunato/U.S. Army)

To learn and enhance their trade, recruiters do attend a formal recruiting course. While the schoolhouse can adapt its lessons to the modern environment, such changes usually await fresh instructors (79R recruiters) who bring in their experiences and techniques. However, outside these rotating instructors, USAREC does not do annual surveys of its recruiters to ask about tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in the field. There are no exit interviews; no consultations are conducted in significant depth at the recruiter level to learn about impacts of new policies and TTPs. When numbers are low, the answers are to “throw more money at the recruits,” “improve advertising,” and “work more hours” for the recruiters. 

But the problem is not hours worked as much as it is using an antiquated system with a foundation from the 1970s. For example, recruiters today still cold call candidates based on high school rosters filled out 2-4 years earlier when the student was enrolled. While this was effective in the past with landlines in most homes, numbers have radically dwindled with cell phones replacing these legacy systems. As such, when a high schooler is registered, the number is likely to be the parent’s cell number, creating another hurdle for the recruiter. 

Cold call and high school engagements have ignored significant opportunities for recruiters in new media. Much of this comes from a ban on recruiters using personal accounts unless registered through USAREC due to security concerns, legalities of use of personal accounts for government activities, and hesitancy from the uncertainties of using social media platforms. The solution is either TO register a personal account with oversight or to use official unit accounts on social media — an impersonal government entity that requires consistent monitoring and is often lower in priority due to lack of guidance, training, and expertise. Through an official account, the Army also asks recruits making one of their most personal life decisions to date — enlisting in the Army — to coordinate through a faceless office account rather than a dedicated recruiter in the digital space.

Rather than examine these issues and attempt the standard answers of money, better advertising, and increased hours at recruiting stations, we see the current recruiting shortcomings as an opportunity for genuine change. While the Army can consider awaiting a recession that causes a turn in the job market, it is ineffective to not modernize recruiting practices. Adjusting the current system can create a more efficient system, increase the happiness and job satisfaction of recruiters — some of whom are now being forced to extend their tours — and deliver a better product to the nation.


Daniel Johnson is a former infantry officer and journalist who served with the United States Army in Iraq, and recently completed his MA through the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC–Chapel Hill where he will return in the fall as a 1st year PhD Student. He is the author of #Inherent Resolve, a book on his unit’s experience in the war against ISIS.

Lt. Col. James Machado is an active-duty U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer and currently a Goodpaster Scholar in the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program (ASP3) as a 2nd year PhD student at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill. The views here are those of the author alone and do not represent the positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.