The Trump Administration Wants A Bigger Army, Putting Pressure On Military Recruiters
Last spring, the Army sharply increased the number of active duty enlistees that its recruiters were expected to sign.
It was the largest mid-year increase in the history of the all-volunteer force. The "mission," as recruiters call their goal, jumped from 62,500 to 68,500 active-duty enlistees.
And when recruiters squeaked by that goal in October, they were given another huge increase: 80,000 new enlistments for the full year.
"An 80,000 mission for the active Army is huge, and it's something we haven't done in a very long time," said Kelli Bland, a spokeswoman for the Army Recruiting Command.
Bland said the Pentagon understands the challenge of recruiting so many soldiers. It has added 400 new recruiters, and it's offering substantial bonuses for early enlistees and candidates for jobs the Army especially needs to fill.
It's spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the bonuses and on marketing efforts, and it has been more willing to give waivers for recruits with past marijuana use.
But recruiting is never easy, and right now it's especially hard. The labor market is the tightest it's been in years, the Trump Administration has put more restrictions on recruiting immigrants, and two thirds of young Americans don't even qualify to enlist, in part because so many are obese.
A growing divide between the military and civilian worlds hurts, too.
"We have actually found that about 50 percent of America's youth today knows little to nothing about military service," Bland said. "And if they don't understand the opportunities that are available, they'll probably not be interested in enlisting."
This cultural divide has spurred the Pentagon to start a new nationwide public relations campaign to undermine stereotypes about the military.
And the Army is trying new ways to identify likely recruits, like 23-year-old Jack Hanley, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hanley first heard from a recruiter via email.
"I messaged him back, and within a few hours he had added me on Facebook and direct-messaged me, giving me the information to come to the office," Hanley said.
Recruiting moves out of the mall, onto social media
In the high-effort, low-yield world of military recruiting, North Carolina is a good hunting ground. It's one of just seven states that provide more than half of the Army's troops. The others include California, Texas, and New York.
Most of the seven states are home to major military bases. Recruiters say that means people are more likely to understand the military and be receptive to joining.
But even in North Carolina, the job can be hard for recruiters such as Staff Sgt. Miller McGowan of the Chapel Hill recruiting center.
He's assigned to recruit students from UNC and a local high school. Among other things, that means he has to sort through the 30,000 students at the university and target his efforts at those most likely to be interested in the Army. Just randomly choosing students to contact would waste too much time.
His answer, and the Army's? Working harder and smarter.
Not long ago, he said, a central staple of recruiting was making 100 phone calls a day and just walking up to people in places like shopping malls and coffee shops. Those tactics haven't completely disappeared, but now McGowan spends much of his time hunting online.
He starts with a list of all students in the university, then focuses on specific departments in which the students have proven more likely to consider military service. About one in eight students he contacts agree to meet him for an in-depth discussion.
"Targeting is the name of the game," he said.
He'll email groups of students and contact some via Facebook, which is one of his favorite tools.
"A lot of people in this area have a Facebook account, and it kind of opens up talking points," McGowan said. "Their page gives me good hobbies, tells me where they're from, if they're into any extracurriculars at the school. "Maybe it will tell me a little bit of what their plan is, if we have mutual friends."
Despite new techniques, recruiters feel pressure
At the local high school, McGowan does what recruiters have for decades. He works the halls, the lunch rooms, and sports teams, building connections with students, teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors.
And he uses Facebook to magnify his presence there as well, posting on the pages of his recruits, which gets him attention from their friends.
Last year, the Army began tracking which enlistment prospects had initially been contacted by social media or email, and it set up a pilot program of "virtual recruiting teams" at dozens of local recruiting battalions.
Those teams use social media to search for candidates, then hand off the best prospects to local recruiters.
But even with the new approaches, McGowan says his three-person recruiting center is feeling the pressure of the new higher enlistment goals.
"It used to be in the recruiting world that if you got one enlistment a month, it was 'job well done,'" McGowan said. "But for us, it's essentially double."
"It's very difficult," he said. "You can get from hero to zero very quickly."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.