The Defense Department’s all-volunteer force, made up of uniformed members and civilians, is the finest fighting force in the world, said Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Ashish S. Vazirani during the America’s All-Volunteer Force: The Next 50 Years conference, hosted at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia, Monday.
The National Defense Strategy recognizes that people are critical to DOD’s success, and calls on the department to attract, retain and promote the workforce with the skills and abilities needed to creatively solve national security challenges in a complex global environment.
The strategy also calls on DOD officials to “broaden our recruitment pool to reflect all of the United States, including historically marginalized communities, and promote a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to drive innovative solutions across the enterprise,” he said.
While the department missed its fiscal year 2023 recruiting goal by about 41,000 recruits, retention has been strong; and the services closed out fiscal year 2023 at or above their retention goals, he said. This positive trend indicates that service members generally find the profession of arms personally and professionally rewarding.
The reasons for recruiting shortfalls have been well studied and documented and are complex. Vazirani believes, the greatest challenge is the lack of familiarity with the military among young people.
Young people aren’t saying no to military service, but rather, they simply don’t know much about it. And what they do know is probably incomplete, mischaracterized, or inaccurate.”
Ashish S. Vazirani, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness
There’s been a decreasing connection between young people who are exposed to the unique and compelling stories of service and the pathways offered through service.
“This is a missed opportunity because the military embraces many of the values these young people seek in life and in a career. Young people want options and opportunity to drive impact,” he said.
In 2021, 70% of high school seniors indicated that they want a career that contributes to society. That’s up from 53% in 1976. Generation Z has high expectations for employers. They seek organizations that care about employees’ well-being, organizations that are diverse and inclusive of all people, and those that have ethical leadership. “This is a generation that wants to engage with the world, not shrink from it,” Vazirani said.
Today, very few young people in the U.S. have a parent, brother, sister or close friend who has served. “Young people aren’t saying no to military service, but rather, they simply don’t know much about it. And what they do know is probably incomplete, mischaracterized, or inaccurate,” he said.
To connect with Generation Z and inspire them to serve, the department continues to explore innovative proposals and has taken specific actions at both the individual service and joint force levels to meet end-strength goals while maintaining high standards.
For example, medical disqualification conditions might be reduced if certain timelines for diagnosis and treatment are met. Programs such as the Future Soldier and Future Sailor preparatory courses are helping young people meet or exceed the services’ rigorous standards.
Vazirani said what’s especially needed is a national call to service that inspires young people to think about how they can contribute to something bigger than themselves and use their potential to create a ripple effect that will spread and improve the lives of people at home and abroad.
This message will inform youths that the military offers a broad range of professional career options with real-world experience. And they will receive the support, services and resources they need to thrive beyond the military, helping them to achieve their professional, education, and life goals, he said.
The message will also include DOD’s unmatched mission and a compelling total compensation package that includes retirement and health care benefits.
The services invest heavily in training and education that covers cutting-edge, high-demand career fields, including cyber, space, aeronautics, supply chain, robotics and more, he said.
In addition to GI Bill educational benefits, the services spend over half a billion dollars a year on tuition assistance. They also offer 12 weeks of parental leave for service members, high-quality and affordable child care, and job-training fellowships for military spouses and separating service members.
“This comprehensive suite of messages will be amplified by a robust marketing effort to shift the public narrative around public service,” he said.
“The best recruiters with the best tools cannot assemble a high-performing force without the support of national leaders—such as government leaders, community leaders, parents, veterans, business leaders, teachers and other influencers—in talking about public service and military service with youth[s] in their communities,” he said.