(NewsNation) — The United States Army undershot its recruitment goals during the last fiscal year by 15,000 people, but efforts could be further hampered this year as recruiters face new challenges.
This fiscal year, the Army could miss its goals by 20,000 soldiers amid declining interest among young people, safety concerns, and school closures that cut military officials off from their normal recruitment tactics. The shrinking manpower represents a possible 7% decline over the course of two years, according to numbers reported by the Military Times.
It’s not just the Army, either. The Air Force announced earlier this year it might not meet its recruitment goals, and across the board, Americans’ confidence in the military has been declining for several years, according to a Gallup survey.
The percentage of Americans who had a “great deal of confidence in the military hovered between 72% and 74% from about 2014 to 2020. By 2022, that number fell to 64%, though still representing a majority.
Recruitment struggles vary from a general disinterest in joining the military to the prevalence of young people who are unqualified to join.
“The Department and Military Services are working every day to recruit America’s best talent, but we are facing some headwinds, as many American employers are,” Department of Defense spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said, adding that retention is at a record high.
Problems with recruitment became most apparent after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Military service at that time become “less compelling,” according to the Texas National Security Review.
“For the first time in almost 20 years, American troops are no longer fighting abroad to keep insurgents and terrorists at bay,” wrote retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno and Nora Bensahel, visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies.
The COVID-19 pandemic also hindered recruitment efforts, according to the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). Many schools closed in response to the pandemic, and recruiters instead turned to remote options.
During the last fiscal year, the Army missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 active-duty soldiers, or 25% of its target. This shortfall forced the Army to cut its planned active-duty end strength from 476,000 to 466,000.
And the current fiscal year is likely to be even worse. Army officials project that active end strength could shrink by as much as 20,000 soldiers by September, down to 445,000. That means that the nation’s primary land force could plummet by as much as 7% in only two years.
On top of that, youth obesity rates, which are a common reason for ineligibility, rose from 19% to 22% during the pandemic, the Texas National Security Review reported. Fitness and body fat standards keep an estimated 20% of otherwise eligible young people from joining the service, the MOAA said.
The association suggested investing to make military life better by offering more money, better benefits and improved family house and child care conditions — areas the Department of Defense is exploring.
Services also have become more flexible with eligibility requirements, some of which may help them recruit from Gen Z. That includes lenience when it comes to hair and tattoos and accepting more people with a history of certain mental health issues, according to the MOAA.
“We are also taking significant action to ensure that we lift up the care, services, and benefits the military has to offer while working to uplift young Americans’ physical and academic performance to meet our high standards,” Schwegman said.