The recruiting environment for the U.S. Army is difficult and will become even more so. The problem resides in previous “truths” of Army recruiting relying on fit, motivated high school graduates looking to fill their need for patriotic service. They no longer produce the number of recruits the Army needs.
According to the U.S. Census, over the past 10 years there has been an 8 to 9 percent increase in the number of young adults living at home following high school graduation. The U.S. unemployment rate for those 25 years and older with a high school diploma is just over 4 percent—a 10-year low. Ten states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana use. The demographic statistical challenges facing Army recruiting are stark.
The future of fit and military-service-motivated recruits appears equally bleak. An organization of retired senior military officers called Mission: Readiness states that the level of unfit and obese American youth is already a strategic weakness for the military because it is difficult to find candidates who want to serve and can meet military enlistment standards.
Brand Value Strong
But the Army’s brand value to potential recruits is strong. The Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of Americans trust military leaders, with 25 percent of Americans trusting elected officials.
The existing recruiting challenges demand that the Army embrace modern marketing analytics to enable recruiters to produce more recruits from selected geographic areas and for the Army to reallocate recruiters to ZIP codes likely to produce more recruits. The good news for the Army is the potential number of recruits within the U.S. who can meet Army standards numbers approximately 91,000—an estimated 15 percent increase among historical Army recruiting levels. The Army is at an inflection point where it needs to drastically modify its geographic, staffing and advertising recruiting models to find acceptable candidates in unexpected locations.
The Army must rely on statistical data models at the ZIP code level and re-envision the Army’s brand message away from a message of patriotism toward economic benefits, professional opportunity and advanced (debt-free) education that resounds more strongly than patriotic service with young people. A 2018 RAND Corp. report on new Army privates discovered that service for patriotic reasons was the last reason given for why new soldiers enlisted.
Meet, Exceed Goals
The Army can meet and even exceed its recruiting goals for the next years by transforming toward ZIP code recruiting in areas that possess demographic characteristics that favor military service.
The Army recruits, on average, 79,000 enlisted candidates from nearly 29,000 ZIP codes within the U.S. population of 62 million 15- to 29-year-olds. America is large enough to acquire 11,000 more annual enlisted recruits than the Army enlists today in an average year.
The shortfall of the Army’s recruiting goal is not due to an inability of young people to serve, an inability of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command to lead or an inability of individual Army recruiters to “sell” the benefits of service. The failure of the Army recruiting approach is the Army does not see the critical demographic terrain at the ZIP code level.
Using census data, health data and Department of Education data, all 29,000 ZIP codes within the U.S. can be ranked from first to last in terms of their suitability for Army recruiting efforts.
Employing the ZIP code recruiting model approach, the Army can add 10,000 more enlistees from a small, select group of ZIP codes where recruits still meet Army standards. This “Grow” category of ZIP codes compromises 13 percent of ZIP codes and produces approximately 18 percent of Army enlisted recruits. Today, Grow category ZIP codes only produce recruits at a rate of six recruits per 10,000 15- to 29-year-olds. The so-called Maintain category produces 18 recruits per 10,000 15- to 29-year-olds. Critical to the Army’s recruiting success will be to improve the rate of enlistments from six to 10 per 10,000 15- to 29-year-olds in Grow category ZIP codes. The ZIP codes in the Grow category average 6,500 15- to 29-year-olds per ZIP code versus 2,000 for the Maintain category, demonstrating that the Grow category has significant market size to make it an attractive and approachable market segment for recruiters. Army recruiters need to have additional staff and resources added to Grow category ZIP codes to meet targets.
Approximately 82 percent of current enlistments come from 66 percent of ZIP codes. These ZIP codes produced reliable and consistent enlistment volumes over the past five years (2014–2018). The almost 19,000 ZIP codes in this category are in the Maintain category and are a success story for Army recruiting. Above all, the current methods and goals within this segment need to be maintained. As the Army seeks to grow enlistments, it needs to understand that in these 66 percent of ZIP codes, it is succeeding in achieving the number and quality of recruits. Pouring more benefits, advertising dollars and signing bonuses into these areas will make existing recruits more expensive to get, but will not increase the number of recruits from these ZIP codes because they are already producing the expected number of recruits.
The Army has 21 percent of ZIP codes that produce zero enlistments. These results are due to low population levels, low fitness and education levels, and geographic remoteness. Any recruiters covering these 21 percent of ZIP codes should be re-assigned to Grow category enlistment areas. The Army should name this category the “Engage” group and use direct mail, search engine optimization, video messaging, video advertising, remote interactive gaming and social media to reach out and respond to any prospective enlistment candidates in these approximately 6,000 ZIP codes.
Increasingly, Army enlistments come from areas with low median incomes, higher unemployment rates, low occupational mobility and higher rates of families without health insurance. The key for the Army is to emphasize educational benefits, health insurance, access to home ownership and modern job skill training as the brand messages to convince young people to serve in the Army. The Army needs to promote itself as a social and economic mobility choice for candidates to transform their lives. Veterans’ organizations play a central role in translating this message because ZIP codes with a high number of veterans have a proportionally higher number of Army enlistments.
Best to Worst
Once the Army adopts the Grow, Maintain and Engage categories, individual recruiter enlistment goals need to be adjusted accordingly. Any use of static or pre-existing goals must be replaced with goals arrived at through statistical measures and analytical models that reflect the underlying demographic characteristics of the ZIP code. Furthermore, ZIP codes should be prioritized by best to worst so recruiters work the best ZIP code geographies first.
Using this ZIP code model methodology, urban areas such as Chicago and Houston will see an increase in their enlistment goal rates, where Maintain categories will have a static number of enlistment goals.
In fiscal 2018, the Army delivered $220 million, base request for proposal value, plus an additional $250 million, to McCann, a large advertising agency, in support of Army recruiting efforts. The advertising model of using large agency contracts for TV, radio, web and professional sporting events defies current business marketing approaches that base advertising spending on results produced. Most businesses are moving closer to exclusive use of Facebook and Google for advertising because the advertising spending can be quantified toward results produced.
The Government Accountability Office has found an inability to justify this large Army advertising spending. The Army’s best bet is to give Google $100 million for social media, search engine optimization and limited traditional media advertising, then understand how much $100 million produces in enlistments. The Army must quantify results achieved for advertising spending.
The Army should also create a two- to three-day immersive experience, broadcast on social media, that allows pre-enlistment candidates to be paid, fed and trained so they understand that they can succeed and complete Army training. That way, they can overcome their fear that they can’t achieve success in the Army.
Student debt is a massive problem for young people that the Army can use as an educated, concentrated and available target market for recruiting purposes. The average college graduation rate is just over 50 percent. High student debt levels are one of the leading factors that keep college students from completing their degrees. The answer does not need to be ROTC programs. Instead, ZIP codes with colleges that have high noncompletion rates and high student debt offer a great opportunity for the Army message in high-demand fields of information technology, cyber, engineering and mathematics. The Army could even consider a “Complete Then Serve” program, but today’s student debt levels already represent sufficient opportunity for these colleges as sources of recruiting.
Another new benefit worthy of study is to grant immediate family members of critical Army enlistees some limited health benefits such as pharmacy, dental and optical. This health benefit moves the candidate’s enlistment from an individual commitment to a family commitment. This benefit can be combined with other government health care options, such as Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, to help defer costs.
The Army needs to adopt the use of data analytics and ZIP code targeting approaches in conjunction with modern advertising methodologies to meet personnel needs. The use of ZIP code recruiting methodologies is a change the Army could make almost immediately. Recruiting Command needs to re-envision the “critical terrain” of U.S. geography into a ZIP code-focused methodology that allocates recruiter goals based on the statistical demographics that an area is likely to produce for enlistments.
The brand message for the Army for today’s young people is economic opportunity, professional education and high-value benefits that enable progression toward a middle-class lifestyle. The Army’s use of big ad agencies needs to be curtailed until the precise enlistment results of larger advertising spending can be directly quantified. Finally, a focus on recruiting at high student debt colleges and selective use of medical benefits will align the Army’s message with the needs of a population that is able and willing to serve.
The use of the ZIP code recruiting methodology and the Grow, Maintain, and Engage approach will allow the Army to exceed its historical enlistments and achieve the goals to fully man the force.