The U.S. Army is spending more than ever before on technology to replace an aging military infrastructure, from artificial intelligence to new fighting machines moving 1980s tanks off the field of battle. But the Secretary of the U.S. Army says the nation risks falling behind in the race against China if it can’t recruit enough Americans into the service to be trained on how national defense is being remade for future conflicts.
“We can develop all of the most high-tech new weapons systems, like we are working on right now, but if we don’t have the kinds of talented motivated individuals to use those weapons systems, we won’t be able to do what we need to do,” U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at the CNBC Work Summit on Wednesday.
As the gap between the number of job openings and the number of job seekers has remained wide, the tight labor market has made it increasingly difficult for businesses both big and small to find and hire the right workers. That has also impacted the U.S. Army, which as the largest branch of the U.S. military has a current workforce of 466,400.
“We’re competing for talent just like all of the folks in industry are, and the job market is hot right now,” Wormuth told CNBC’s Morgan Brennan on Wednesday at the CNBC event. “Wages have gone up a lot, and that’s great for Americans, but it’s making it harder for us in the Army to compete.”
The Army missed its recruitment goal for fiscal 2022 by 25% or 15,000 soldiers, the military service said earlier this month. In July, it also cut its projection for the overall size of its force for this fiscal year by 10,000 and projected that it would likely see another decline in 2023.
While the other branches of the military have also had trouble recruiting, none have been as pronounced as the Army’s difficulties, which Wormuth attributed to a variety of factors, including learning losses due to the pandemic and a decline in fitness standards among American youth.
“Only about 23% of kids between 16 and 21 are able to meet our standards, and some of that, frankly, is reflective of the problem that we have in our country with obesity,” she said, adding that behavioral health and misconduct are also factors.
A second “really hard problem” cited by Wormuth is what the Army calls “propensity to serve,” which is inclination among the population to join the military and serve the country.
“Right now, only 9% of young Americans say that they’re interested in joining the military,” she said.
Wormuth, who became the first woman to serve as Army Secretary in May, said the service has already started a variety of efforts to boost near-term recruitment. “The Future Soldier Prep Course,” which is effectively a pre-boot camp that helps potential recruits raise their test scores and get more physically fit to meet Army standards, is one. This program “shows a lot of promise,” Wormuth said.
However, changing the broader propensity of Americans to serve in the military is a challenge that is a much longer-term. One misperception that has to be overcome is about what employment in the military looks like.
“That’s going to take time to change, but a lot of it I think is about getting out there and doing a better job of talking to young Americans about what the Army can do for them, and the incredible breadth of skills that they can have access to in the Army,” Wormuth said. “We have over 178 military occupational specialties in the Army and it’s not just infantry …w e’ve got data scientists, nurses, doctors, lawyers, paralegals, and I think we’ve got to do a better job of explaining that to young Americans and their parents.”
The Army also needs to change how parents think about the Army and the risks it poses to children.
“We’ve also got to do a better job of breaking down some of the misperceptions that I think are out there about serving in the military, which are understandable, you know, given that we’ve been at war, essentially, for the last 20 years,” Wormuth said. “In some of the survey data we see, we see parents worrying about, ‘if my child joins the military will they automatically have PTSD? Will they be sexually harassed, for example, will they think about committing suicide?’”
She pointed to the fact that the Army has been retaining soldiers “very, very well” and exceeding its retention goals, as part of getting the message out about the Army as a career choice.
“I think what that shows is when people come into the Army, a lot of them want to stay in the Army and they wouldn’t want to stay obviously if they were having mental health issues,” she said. “So, I think we just need to talk to parents about the realities of what it means to serve in the Army today.”
While recent criticisms over the politicization of the military could be impacting the perception of joining the Army, Wormuth said that when she speaks to soldiers across the globe, “I don’t hear a lot from them about politics.”
“I think where it’s maybe more of an issue is with parents who may be watching the news and kind of seeing how the Army sometimes can be turned into a little bit of a political football, and I think the way that we navigate that is just to continue to stress to young Americans and parents and other kinds of influencers that the Army is apolitical and when you join the Army, you swear an oath to the Constitution,” she said.
“You don’t swear an oath to either political party. You don’t swear an oath to a specific president. You’re swearing an oath to the Constitution to protect the nation,” she said.
Wormuth also weighed in on the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the risk of nuclear conflict, saying that it is unlikely Russian president Vladimir Putin follows through on threats to launch a nuclear attack. “There is a lot of concern given how Putin has escalated [the conflict],” Wormuth said. “Certainly there is a concern.” But she said that despite Putin’s threats to use such a weapon against its ex-Soviet neighbor, it is “still an unlikely event.”
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