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How can the US Navy boost its suffering recruitment?

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navy boot camp graduation
Recruits with the 64th Annual Recruit Cardinal Division march in formation during a pass-in-review graduation ceremony inside Midway Ceremonial Drill Hall at Recruit Training Command, Nov. 4, 2022. Cardinal Division is named after the St. Louis Cardinals, who have sponsored one division per year since 1958, and is the U.S. Navy’s longest-running special recruit division, November 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson)

During the first quarter of fiscal year 2024, the U.S. Navy hit only 65 percent of its target recruitment goal for the quarter. That percentage was the lowest reached among all of the five branches of the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. Army also failed to meet its recruitment target for the first quarter of 2024, though came closer than the Navy reaching 74 percent. Further, 2023 was the worst recruitment year for the Navy – and the entire U.S. military – since the establishment of the all-volunteer force. Only the Marine Corps and Space Force made their 2023 recruitment targets. The Air Force, meanwhile, had a more successful first quarter of 2024, exceeding its target goal.

All of this is to say, the Navy has a recruitment problem (so does the Army, apparently, but this author will leave that to active and former Army people to figure out). How does the Navy overcome this dearth of volunteers? First, we need to look at who exactly makes up the recruitment pool nowadays.

That would be Generation Z.

In December 2023, acting Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Ashish Vazirani commented on the problems encountered in trying to recruit members of Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012). He pointed out that they have a low level of trust in institutions. That presents a big problem when we need those young people – who comprise today’s 18- to 27-year-olds – to step up and serve.

navy outreach in school
U.S. Navy Sailors answer questions from students at Everett High School during an outreach event in Boston. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Dylan Lavin/Naval Special Warface Center)

So, how can the Navy make service more appealing to these Gen Z’ers? First, it needs to reach out to these young people where they are. That would be social media apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, as well as YouTube. This author has four Gen Z children and they hardly ever watch “traditional” television, and hop around on various streaming platforms when they do decide to sit for a show or movie. A lot of the time, though, they are on the above social apps on their phones. The Navy needs to target them there, on their own digital terrain.

What about the message? In the past, the Navy has tried to play up the high-profile, “sexy” jobs, with commercials featuring Navy SEALs and jet fighter pilots. That’s all well and good, but young people are smart enough to know that those careers comprise a small share of the Navy jobs available. Instead, the service needs to reach out and be realistic with what is on offer and what the advantages of a Navy career (even a short one) might be.

By way of example, involving the Air Force, my oldest son wants to pursue a career in aerospace engineering. I mentioned to him a while back that perhaps he should look at pursuing an Air Force ROTC scholarship, which would pay for his undergraduate schooling, and then provide him with a stellar four years of practical experience in the world of cutting-edge aerospace engineering in the Air Force. He considered the idea, then ran with it, and is currently the recipient of that same ROTC scholarship and about to embark on an educational path that will lead to active duty service in the Air Force.

Related: These are 3 popular misconceptions about the Navy SEALs

navy boot camp graduation ceremony
Recruits from Division 229 march to their graduation ceremony at the Navy’s only Boot Camp, March 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Austin Rooney/Released)

There was no trickery involved in my pitch, no bait-and-switch recruitment angle, nor did I try to play on his patriotism or an abstract sense of duty. While patriotism and duty are obviously important, and probably play a big role in his decision, it was ultimately the promise of a kickstart to his career in aerospace engineering and the tuition benefit that sealed the deal for him.

How can this vignette translate to a recruitment strategy for the Navy? I would suggest reaching out to where these kids are, via communications platforms they actually use, and being straightforward and honest about the career possibilities in the Navy, as well as how those careers can benefit them. Tell them that military service does not have to be a lifetime commitment, and in fact, most military members serve only a relatively short amount of time before returning to civilian life to pursue other careers. Emphasize how that service can help in the transition to civilian jobs, offering valuable experience and training, as well as life skills acquired in military service.

For the rest of us, and by that I mean friends and family members of those young people considering service we need to actively support the idea of a career or short stint in military service. The experience was a life-changing one for me, and I would dare to say it was for all those who serve. The rewards are plentiful, by way of tangible benefits as well as intangible ones such as personal fulfillment. There is a profound sense of accomplishment at having done one’s duty for one’s country, as well as the feeling of having passed through a crucible that only other fellow servicemembers can truly appreciate. It makes one feel they are a contributing citizen, in other words, having volunteered to serve their nation. Maybe all of us can remind today’s young people of that every once in a while, and their mistrust of institutions will slowly fade away.

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Frumentarius

Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.

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