The Army is sending its trio of senior leaders to public schools to speak to students and key education officials across the country in a bid to rekindle relationships as the service has struggled to reach out to Gen Z.
The move is meant to reconnect the Army with students after recruiters were largely barred from schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gen. James McConville, the service's chief of staff, went to the South, meeting with school officials in Georgia on Tuesday. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth went out West last week, meeting with Los Angeles Unified School District's superintendent and will be in Texas next week. Meanwhile, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston is in New England on Thursday, visiting the University of New Haven in Connecticut and then heading to the Midwest to a public high school in Columbus, Ohio.
Schools are largely seen as a critical meeting point for civilians and the military, serving as prime locations for recruiters to fill in the ranks and for young Amerians to learn about job opportunities in the force and critical benefits, particularly the GI Bill and National Guard tuition assistance.
"This is about getting to know the Army," Grinston, the service's top enlisted leader, told Military.com. "This is about saying who we are and debunking myths about service."
The Army's recruiting slump has been attributed to a confluence of issues, including a competitive civilian job market and a lack of a call to arms spurring young Americans to recruiting stations as the military enters what superficially appears to be peacetime.
Much of the problem has also been attributed to the service's difficulty in reaching America's youth. What was once a thriving and youthful social media platform, Facebook, is now largely associated with older users. The military's efforts on Twitch were rocky at best, and TV ads have diminished greatly in effectiveness in an era in which audiences are fragmented. Meanwhile, the service is generally barred from advertising on TikTok, which is by far the most popular social media platform for young Americans, due to that network's Chinese ownership.
"We really want to reintroduce the United States Army to the kids in the district and the families to talk about all the great opportunities and choices that the Army can offer," Wormuth said during her visit to LA.
Sending service leaders to schools isn't new and was relatively routine before the pandemic. But those visits have been scarce since remote learning took over, followed by schools slowly returning to classrooms and beginning to loosen pandemic restrictions.
Part of the recent push from senior leaders is to dispel common myths of military service. That includes the idea that the Army's standards have lowered or that the service only offers combat roles, whereas those jobs actually make up an extreme minority of the force.
"Some of [the myth] is recruits are folks that can't hack it in the real world," Grinston said, referring to some of the perception of service in the civilian world. "Our standards are extremely high, so high it's hard to find recruits."
The Army's struggles aren't solely tied to pitching service to the public. It's also difficult to find solid applicants, as only an estimated 23% of 17- to 24-year-olds are even qualified for service. Since the pandemic, the service has seen a 9% decline in Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, test scores.
Widespread obesity is also a major recruiting limitation. Because of that, the Army launched a pre-basic training course last summer in which applicants who failed either the ASVAB or did not meet service body fat standards can attend for up to 90 days for tutoring or to lose weight. Army planners are looking to expand that effort, possibly next year.
The Army fell about 25% or some 15,000 soldiers, short of its recruiting goal in fiscal 2022, which ended Sept. 30, marking the most challenging recruiting year since the beginning of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War. The Army National Guard is in an even worse spot, coming up short on recruiting while struggling with keeping troops in the ranks.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.