The Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest employer in the United States. The current size of the enlisted military force is 1.2 million and approximately 200,000 new recruits are needed each year to maintain this level. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the supply and demand for recruits has fluctuated based on mission requirements, budgetary constraints, and economic conditions. In recent times, recruiting has been made more difficult by a healthy economy, the growing number of youth who aspire to a college education, and a steadily downward trend in interest in military service. Even with the instability in the economy and the loss of civilian jobs in many sectors in 2000–2001, interest in the military has not increased.
In the late 1990s, the Services struggled to meet their recruiting goals and in some cases fell short. This led to the question of how the recruiting process and the recruiters’ job could be better supported in order to ensure that force strength, force quality, and the required skill mix of personnel will be available to meet the ever-changing security and defense challenges. Military officials recognized that a fundamental understanding of the youth population and of the effectiveness of various advertising and recruiting strategies used to attract them would be extremely valuable in addressing these questions. As a result, in 1999, the DoD asked the National Academy of Sciences, through its National Research Council, to establish the Committee on the Youth Population and Military Recruit-
ment to provide information about the demographic characteristics, skill levels, attitudes, and values of the youth population, to examine options available to youth following high school graduation, and to recommend various recruiting and advertising strategies and incentive programs based on sound scientific data with the goal of increasing propensity and facilitating enlistment. It was decided early in the process that the focus would be limited to policy options that could be implemented within the current institutional structure. Thus, such topics as changing the length of the enlistment term or the coordination among various government agencies were not addressed.
The committee is composed of 15 experts in the areas of demography, military manpower, military sociology, psychology, adolescent development, economics, advertising and communication, and private sector management. The sections that follow provide an overview of our major findings and recommendations.
MILITARY MANPOWER REQUIREMENTS
In spite of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and in spite of changing missions and requirements for the U.S. military, we see no clear indication that the size of the military will change significantly over the next 20 years. It is expected that as priorities change the force mix among the active duty, Reserve, and National Guard structures will change, with increasing emphasis on the Reserves. All of the subsequent discussion is based on this premise that overall force size will not change. The challenge for recruiting and retention will be manning selected career areas to ensure that shortfalls in critical areas do not compromise unit readiness.
There have been few major changes in the occupational distribution of first-term personnel in the past 10 years, but future military missions coupled with advances in technology are expected to require military personnel to make greater use of technology. Technological changes will make some jobs in the future easier and others more difficult, but overall minimum aptitude requirements are unlikely to change much over the next 20 years. However, the mental, physical, and moral requirements for military service are unlikely to change over this time period. The Services are currently accessing recruits who have sufficient aptitude and can be trained to perform military tasks adequately even if occupational requirements do increase somewhat. Recruits satisfying current quality levels can be trained to meet future demands.
Since retention is critical to maintaining required force size, experience, and skill mix, it is important to better understand first-term attrition and voluntary separation at the end of a term of duty. More valid and
reliable data from exit surveys are needed to achieve this understanding than are available at present.
THE YOUTH POPULATION
The demographic context for armed forces recruitment is determined by the size and composition of the youth population. These are fundamental constraints on future recruitment efforts. Cohorts of persons reaching 18 years of age are expected to grow significantly over the next 10 years and then remain approximately at a plateau during the following decade. Approximately 3.9 million youth reached age 18 in 1999, a number that will increase to approximately 4.4 million by 2009 and trail off only slightly during the subsequent decade.
The ethnic composition of the youth population will change significantly over the next 15 to 20 years. Even in the absence of changes in immigration patterns, the ethnic makeup of the youth population will change because of recent changes in the ethnic makeup of women of childbearing age and ethnic differences in fertility rates. Based on recent fertility patterns, the percentage of young adults who are Hispanic, of whom the largest subgroup is of Mexican origin, will increase substantially. A growing percentage of youth will be raised by parents who are immigrants to the United States, a result of high rates of recent immigration and relatively high fertility levels of foreign-born women.
The socioeconomic characteristics of parents, such as their levels of educational attainment, have a large effect on the aspirations and decisions of youths, especially concerning higher education. Average levels of maternal education for teenagers have increased markedly and will continue to do so over the next two decades, a result of secular increases (i.e., trends over time) in educational attainment in the population. Within the next two decades, the majority of youths will be raised by mothers who have completed at least some college.
Trends in numbers of births and in the composition of the child population have offsetting effects on potential enlistment trends. Although the annual number of births has increased in recent years, children are increasingly raised by highly educated parents and by parents who have no direct experience with the armed forces. The net impact of these offsetting trends is a small increase in expected numbers of enlistees in the next decade. Thus, demographic trends do not emerge as factors that will contribute to increasing difficulty in meeting enlistment goals. Other factors discussed in this report, including advertising and recruitment prac-
tices, will determine whether potential enlistees actually enlist at a rate necessary to meet the Services’ goals.
Current statutory enlistment standards for education and aptitude levels are somewhat higher than the distribution of education and aptitudes in the general population. However, it is expected that potential supply of highly qualified youth, those who meet or exceed enlistment standards, in terms of education and aptitude, will remain fairly stable over the next 10 years, and there is no reason to expect any decline over the next 20 years. If anything, the proportion of highly qualified youth may increase slightly, particularly if the high school graduation rate remains high.
An analysis of current enlistment force composition shows that the enlistment rates of highly qualified males and females are virtually the same. Regarding ethnicity, black and Hispanic groups have lower enlistment rates of highly qualified youth than whites, with Hispanics showing higher rates than blacks. Although the percentage of Hispanic youth in the enlisted force is increasing, they are still underrepresented compared with the general population of the same age. At the same time, blacks are somewhat overrepresented. In 2000, the force was 18 percent female compared with 51 percent female in the general civilian population of the same age. The ethnic distribution of the force was 62 percent white, 20 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic compared with 65 percent, 14 percent, and 15 percent, respectively, in the civilian population ages 18– 24.
With regard to physical problems, current population trends suggest increases in certain health conditions, such as obesity and asthma, both of which make the individual ineligible for military service. Concerning moral issues, current trends in illicit drug use and criminal activity appear to have little effect on recruiting issues.
Opportunities and Options
The primary alternatives to military service are civilian employment and postsecondary education. Currently, the greatest challenge to military recruiting is attracting college-bound youth. The armed forces compete directly for the same portion of the youth market that colleges attempt to attract—high school graduates who score in the upper half of the distribution on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). During the 1990s, rates of college enrollment and levels of education completed increased dramatically as a result of three broad trends: (1) changes over time in
parental characteristics, especially parents’ educational attainment, which increased youths’ resources and aspirations for education; (2) the greater inclusion in higher education of women and some ethnic minorities; and (3) increased economic incentives to attend and complete college, a result of changes in the labor market for college- and noncollege-educated workers. In 1999, 63 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college in the same year they graduated from high school.
Opportunities for employment in the civilian sector for high school graduates are highly variable and do not have a clear economic advantage over military service. Although compensation strategies can respond to market demands in the civilian sector, they are not necessarily superior to the compensation offered in the military. There are two areas, however, in which substantial differences between the military and civilian employment exist: working conditions and the opportunity to serve a higher purpose. An individual might prefer working conditions in the civilian sector to those in the military, where conditions may be onerous or life-threatening. However, that individual is more likely to find a transcendent purpose (e.g., duty to country) by serving in the military rather than being employed in the civilian sector.
Attitudes and Values
Youth attitudes toward the importance of various goals in life, preferred job characteristics, and work setting have changed very little over the past 25 years. The value that has been changing most significantly is college aspirations and college attendance. One useful finding regarding education and military service is that, in recent years, the majority of high school seniors (both male and female) who reported the highest propensity to join the military also expected to complete a four-year college program.
One critical finding regarding youth attitudes is that the propensity to enlist in the military among high school males has been declining since the mid-1980s, while prior to that time, propensity had been increasing. In this key group for recruiting, the proportion indicating that they “definitely will” join a military Service has declined from 12 to 8 percent during that time period. There has also been a shift in interest reflected by a decline in those indicating they “probably won’t” and an increase in those saying “definitely won’t” join. The proportion least interested in military service has increased in the past two decades from about 40 to about 60 percent. The percentage of females who say they “definitely will” serve has remained at 5 percent over the past several years; however, since 1980, the percentage who say they “definitely won’t” serve has increased from 75 to approximately 82 percent.
Several other aspects of youth attitudes and behavior provide potential guidance for the design of military recruiting and advertising messages: (1) the time in which youth make decisions about education and careers has extended well into their 20s; (2) there has been little or no change in youths’ views about the military service as a workplace or the value and appropriateness of military missions; (3) there has been some increase in the desire of youth to have two or more weeks vacation—a benefit of military service over the civilian sector; (4) there is a possible link between youth attitudes toward civic duty and volunteerism and military service (the potential of this link requires further study); and (5) parents, particularly mothers, and counselors have a strong influence on youth decision making with regard to career and educational choices.
ADVERTISING AND RECRUITING
Most attempts to predict propensity have occurred at the aggregate level, examining the relation between the proportion of people with a propensity to enlist (or who have actually enlisted) and a large array of demographic, economic, and psychosocial variables (e.g., percent unemployed, civilian/military pay differentials, educational benefits offered, percentage of the population holding a given belief, attitude, or value) over time. Such aggregate-level analysis can disguise important effects at the individual level. For purposes of designing interventions to increase the proportion of the population with a propensity to enlist at any given point in time or to increase the likelihood that those with a propensity will, in fact, enlist, individual-level analyses that identify the critical determinants of propensity are critical. These types of analyses have not been done. Thus, the most relevant data for guiding the development of effective messages to increase propensity are currently not available.
As a matter of military readiness, DoD may wish to consider maintenance of the level and direction of the propensity to enlist to be a primary responsibility. Societal factors are also important, but some organization or voice in the nation must take the lead in maintaining propensity at a level needed to effectively sustain the military services. Advertising can be used to support the propensity to enlist in the youth population of interest for military recruiting. Rather than allocate advertising expenditures on the basis of immediate recruiting goals, advertising can be more usefully deployed as a means of supporting and maintaining the level of propensity to enlist. That is, military readiness may be best served when the first role of military advertising is to support the overall propensity to enlist in the youth population and to maintain a propensity level that will enable productivity in military recruiting.
Advertising planners should consider the trade-offs between primary and selective demand. An assessment should be made regarding the portion of military advertising to be devoted to supporting the overall propensity to enlist in the military (primary demand) and the proportion to be devoted to attracting needed recruits to the individual military Services (selective demand).
Two classes of factors appear to be linked to recruiting outcomes. The first class involves “doing more,” meaning investing more resources in traditional recruiting activities. The second class involves “doing differently,” meaning engaging in new recruiting activities or modifying the way traditional activities are carried out.
In terms of doing more, research indicates that recruiting success is responsive to additional expenditures in the number of recruiters, dollars spent on advertising, size of enlistment bonuses, dollars spent on funding subsequent education, and pay. The marginal cost of increasing recruiting effectiveness via pay is markedly higher than that for the other options. For this reason, we recommend that the Services and DoD periodically evaluate the effects of increased investment in recruiters, educational benefits, enlistment bonuses, and advertising as well as the most efficient mix of these resources.
In terms of doing differently, we offer a variety of conclusions and recommendations. First, in the important domain of education, we recommend increasing mechanisms for permitting military service and pursuit of a college degree to occur simultaneously. In light of the higher education aspirations of youth and their parents, such mechanisms are central to recruiting success. Perhaps the most dramatic attitudinal and behavioral change over the past several decades is the substantial increase in educational aspirations and college attendance.
We also note that the numbers of college dropouts and stopouts (those who leave and return later) and the numbers of youth delaying the traditional activities that signal a transition from adolescence to adulthood (e.g., career choice, mate choice) suggest increasing attention to a broader market than the traditional focus on those just completing high school. For this reason, we recommend that DoD investigate mechanisms for cost-effective recruiting of the college stopout/dropout market and that DoD continue to link Service programs with existing postsecondary institutions offering distance degree programs.
Second, in the domain of advertising, we recommend attention to three key issues. One is the balance between a focus on military service as a whole and Service-specific advertising. Advertising theory and research
suggest the value of supporting overall propensity for military service in addition to Service-specific advertising. Another is a balance between a focus on the extrinsic rewards of military service (e.g., funds for college) and intrinsic rewards, including duty to country and achieving purpose and meaning in a career. While many youth are responsive to an extrinsic focus, an additional segment of the youth population sees intrinsic factors as the primary appeal of military service. A final issue is the role of parents in the enlistment decisions of their sons and daughters. Their key role suggests that attention be paid to the effects of advertising on parental perceptions of military service. We recommend that a key objective of the Office of the Secretary of Defense should be to increase the propensity to enlist in the youth population. We further recommend that advertising strategies increase the weight given to the intrinsic benefits of military service.
Third, in the domain of recruiting practices, we recommend that attention be paid to the selection and training of recruiters. We note that there are substantial differences in recruiter performance, yet the process of staffing the recruiting services does not focus centrally on selecting individuals on the basis of expected productivity. We also note the importance of rewarding and providing incentives to recruiter performance. Specifically, we recommend that the Services develop and implement recruiter selection systems that are based on maximizing mission effectiveness; that they develop and implement training systems that make maximum use of realistic practice and feedback; and that they explore innovative incentives to reward effective recruiting performance.
Recruiting is a complex process, and there is no single route to achieving success in achieving recruiting goals. Nonetheless, we believe that progress has been made toward a better understanding of the process, and that useful avenues for exploration have been identified.