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Officials Say DOD Must Be Employer of Choice to Meet Manpower Goals

America depends on volunteers for its military. 

On Jan. 27, 1973, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird Jr. announced that the U.S. military would fill its ranks exclusively with volunteers rather than with draftees. On July 1, 1973, the military draft ended. 

Four young men stand with their right hands raised during an enlistment.
Marine Corps Enlistment
Young men enlist in the Marine Corps at Recruiting Station, Little Rock, Ark., in 1986.
Photo By: Marine Corps Staff Sgt. David Vergun
VIRIN: 860504-D-UB488-001Y

Today, to meet recruitment and retention goals, the Defense Department must make volunteering in the military attractive, especially in this era of low unemployment, said DOD officials. 

Agnes Gereben Schaefer, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs and other service leaders discussed the All-Volunteer Force at 50 at the Center for a New American Security National Security Conference on "American Power and Purpose." 

There are many advantages to serving, Schaefer said, including professional career paths and working with others who have a diversity of experiences and perspectives.  

A big challenge facing the Army, she said, is recognition. "Large swaths of the country just aren't familiar with the Army." 

Two women in military uniform stand before each other with their right hands raised. A man in uniform stands in the background holding the American flag.
Oath of Enlistment
Army Capt. Joy R. Petway administers the Oath of Enlistment to Army Staff Sgt. Julie Charles at the 88th Readiness Division Headquarters, Fort McCoy, Wis., Nov. 22, 2022.
Photo By: Cheryl Phillips, Army
VIRIN: 221122-A-WE835-1001Y

In part, this is due to closures of installations in the northern part of the U.S. in the 1980s, she said. 

"Folks don't see neighbors who were in the military, they don't see folks walking down the street in uniform. So we are seeing a really big and growing cultural knowledge gap regarding the military. … It's amazingly that after 20 years of war we have a country that really doesn't know its military," Schaefer said. 

Talent management is a key to making the Army more attractive, she said, meaning matching skills, knowledge, abilities and positions with individual strengths. 

It's about "making the Army an employer of choice among the vast choices that people have right now in the private sector," she said. 

Once soldiers come into the Army, they tend to stay, she said. "Our retention rates are at historical highs, but I do worry about keeping that shored up. I don't want that to slide." 

Among the retention tools, she said, are bonuses, listening to family feedback, quality of life improvements and flexibility of assignments and duty stations. 

Franklin R. Parker, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, said recruiting and retention in the Navy and Marine Corps are good. 

Sailors pose for a group photo.
Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush reenlisted, June 18, 2019, aboard the decommissioned battleship USS Wisconsin, in Norfolk, Va.
Photo By: Max Lonzanida, Navy
VIRIN: 190618-N-TG517-027Y

The sea services are looking for ways to improve retention even more through earlier reenlistment opportunities, improving quality of life, special duty assignments, helping personnel acquire valuable skills and credentials for their profession, incentive pay and removing high-year tenure for a number of positions. 

"We have a tremendously talented nation. And as a result, we have a tremendously talented corps of servicemembers. From a talent management standpoint, I think our imperative is really to make sure that we are mining, managing and developing that talent, helping all our people achieve their potential. And I think in doing so that only makes us stronger," he said. 

Alex Wagner, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, said recruiting for the All-Volunteer Force is a challenge. 

"Right now we have record low unemployment and record high wage growth. And so we are competing for talent with the private sector," he said. 

Another problem is political polarization in American society, Wagner said.  

"Historically, the military had been that one part of our society and our national fabric that united disparate parts of our body politic. Today, extremes from both ends are looking at our military and using it as a way to champion their small, partisan, extreme politics," he said. 

This is causing a rift between the American people and its military. "That's what really worries me," he said. 

"Once people join, they want to stay. But increasingly, we are in competition with the private sector. We've got to be an employer of choice. And that's not only an employer of choice for the member, but also for their dependents. And so, all of these quality-of-life issues are not tangential to our mission. They are at the core of what it means to have a ready and resilient force," he said. 

Men stand with their right hands raised.
Air Force Enlistment
Young men enlist in the Air Force, July 26, 2022, in Biloxi, Miss.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Burks
VIRIN: 220726-F-XJ860-0006Y

For retention, the Space Force is working on managing talent in a way that will allow people to have more of a work-life harmony, he said, providing examples. 

"If you've got a sick relative that you need to care for, maybe you can go from a full-time status to a part-time status. Maybe you want to be with your kids over the last two years of high school, instead of focused solely on the job. And so you can go from full-time to part-time. And then when that situation resolves, go back to full-time," he said. 

Wagner added that the Air Force must also provide airmen and their families with a reasonable living standard.

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