A tight job market, a depleted candidate pool and the lingering aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic are making for a grim recruiting environment for the nation’s military services, top Pentagon officials told a Senate hearing Wednesday.
At the end of the 2022 fiscal year, only the Marine Corps met both active-duty and reserve recruiting goals. The Army, the largest of the services, fell short by 15,000 active-duty troops, even after lowering its target by 9,000 soldiers, according to figures from the Military Officers Association of America.
Undersecretary of the Army Gabriel Camarillo acknowledged to the Senate Armed Service Committee that the service fell short of its recruiting mission for the 2022 fiscal year, and admitted that — at a time of near-record low U.S. civilian unemployment — the challenges will not be quickly reversed.
“Today’s recruiting landscape did not emerge overnight and it will take more than one year to solve,” Mr. Camarillo told the senators.
Lawmakers clashed over whether the Pentagon‘s embrace of progressive social ideas such as diversity and inclusion was hurting an already tough recruiting market for the military branches.
Committee Chairman Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said criticisms that the Biden administration Pentagon was too focused on progressive social policies at the expense of recruitment were misplaced. He said the services’ shortfalls had more to do with the strong job market and the growing percentage of younger Americans who are out of shape or who fare poorly on entrance exams.
“Even in the best of times, a strong economy and low national unemployment have always made military recruiting difficult,” he said. “The number of young Americans qualified or interested in military service is declining.”
But Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the committee’s ranking Republican, was one of several GOP members who argued that “woke” policy initiatives were not helping in the struggle to attract recruits.
The Defense Department “must put at least as much effort into solving the recruiting crisis as it has into other initiatives like extremism, diversity, equity and inclusion and abortion,” Mr. Wicker said. “These initiatives are at best a distraction. At worst, they dissuade young people from enlisting.”
Undersecretary of the Navy Erik Raven faced pointed questioning over the Navy’s recent decision to lower the bar on qualifying scores for its entrance exam as a way to ease the recruiting shortfall. He said the new standards for recruits would not lower standards to advance to key jobs such as machinist mate or fire controlman.
“We’re trying to increase the pool, but the standards for performing the job are what is key and … we have not changed that,” Mr. Raven said.
Mr. Wicker of Mississippi compared the situation today to that facing the Carter administration. The Pentagon then opted to lower recruiting standards to make up for the recruiting shortfall following the end of the Vietnam War.
“We should not repeat the mistakes of those earlier years during this administration,” he said. “There are no easy solutions to this problem, but we know what does not work. Lowering recruitment standards today leads to morale, discipline and readiness problems tomorrow.”
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Iowa Army National Guard after 23 years in uniform. Her father also served in the Iowa Guard and her daughter is currently on active duty in the Army. She said a paycheck that can match the private sector will do more to increase military recruiting than any other answer.
“The promise of competitive pay is the foundation for the all-volunteer force. It does impact recruiting and it does impact retention,” Sen. Ernst said.
The Pentagon officials said they were always considering the role pay issues play in filling the ranks. Mr. Raven said the Navy continually assesses what bonuses and benefits to offer potential recruits but pushed back on what he said was a perception that service members earn substantially less than their civilian counterparts.
Ms. Ernst bristled, saying the comment was “very ‘apples and oranges’ when you’re asking young men and women to travel around the world and be separated from their family.”
• Mike Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.
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