Some 6,500 soldiers short of its goal nationwide in 2018, the Army plans a big push in 22 left-leaning cities — such as Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle — where relatively few recruits have signed up.
Army recruiters in Seattle can earn a Friday off for each new soldier they enlist. But in a city with a thriving tech industry and a long history of anti-war protests, the recruiters haven’t gotten many long weekends.
“It’s no secret we’re a little behind,” Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Vargas, who heads the city’s recruiting station, told four recruiters at a recent morning pep talk. With a week left in the month, he wrote the station’s goal — five recruits — on a white board, and then the current tally: two.
“What do we need to make mission?” he asked.
One recruiter responded with a shrug, “A miracle.”
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The Army is not quite counting on miracles, but after falling 6,500 soldiers short of its goal nationwide in 2018, it is trying a new strategy that might seem almost as unlikely.
Rather than focus on more conservative regions of the country that traditionally fill the ranks, the Army plans a big push in 22 left-leaning cities, like Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, where relatively few recruits have signed up.
“We want to go into Boston, Pittsburgh, Kansas City,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the head of Army Recruiting Command. “These are places with a large number of youth who just don’t know what the military is about.”
The approach might seem like hunting for snow in Miami. But Army leaders say that all they need to attract enlistees in those cities are a surge of recruiters and the right sales pitch.
The pitch they have used for years, playing down combat and emphasizing job training and education benefits, can work well when civilian opportunities are scarce. But it is a tough sell these days in a place like Seattle, where jobs are plentiful and the local minimum wage of $15 an hour beats the base pay for privates, corporals or specialists.
Instead, Muth said, the Army wants to frame enlistment as a patriotic detour for motivated young adults who might otherwise be bound for a corporate cubicle — a detour that promises a chance for public service, travel and adventure.
“You want to do a gap year?” the general said. “Come do your gap year in the Army.” (Figuratively speaking, of course: Enlistees commit to serve for two to six years.)
For decades, Army recruiting has relied disproportionately on a crescent-shaped swath of the country stretching from Virginia through the South to Texas, where many military bases are found and many families have traditions of service. Young people there enlist at two to three times the rate of other regions.
By contrast, in the big metropolitan areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, young people are less likely to have a parent, teacher or coach who served in the military, which can be a major factor in deciding to enlist. And in those regions, many high schools openly discourage recruiters from interacting with students.
When the Seattle recruiters visit schools, they are sometimes met by anti-war “counter-recruiting action teams” who call attention to civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and the high rate of sexual assault in the military.
“Legally, the high schools have to let us in, but a lot of times, they’ll just ignore our calls,” Vargas said. “A lot of schools don’t want us to talk to their kids. They want them to go to college, and see the military as a last resort.”
Parents can be just as leery. “They say ‘Thank you for your service, but stay away from my kid,’” said Capt. Carlos Semidey, the Seattle recruiters’ company commander.
Those cold shoulders were easy to ignore when the jobless rate was above 6 percent and the Army’s most dependable recruiter, Sgt. Hard Times, was driving high school graduates to enlist. But now, unemployment has fallen to 50-year lows.
“Whenever that happens, the Army faces recruiting challenges,” said David R. Segal, a sociologist who advises the military on recruiting. “But they have always doubled down on areas where they know they can get results. This is a 180-degree turn.”
The Army has begun redirecting its marketing toward digital-native urbanites and suburbanites who are eager for excitement. Out went the Army’s sponsorship of a drag-racing team; in are teams of soldiers who compete in mixed martial arts, CrossFit, and competitive video gaming, or e-sports.
Ads on network sports broadcasts are being scaled back in favor of targeted ads on Facebook and Twitch, Amazon’s livestreaming gaming platform. Recruiters will soon be required, not just encouraged, to post on Instagram.
“Kids aren’t watching network TV any more,” Muth said. “They are not at the mall. And they don’t answer calls from numbers they don’t know. But we know they want to serve their community, so we have to start that conversation with them.”
Unlike the Army, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy were able to meet 2018 recruiting goals — in part because each requires less than half the Army’s numbers.
But squeezed by the same forces, all military branches must sweeten their enlistment deals, adding sign-up and retention bonuses and loosening medical standards on childhood conditions like asthma and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Navy is even offering a “golden ticket” that allows some enlisted personnel to take a year off and return with the same job and rank.
The Army has had to change tactics before to fill its ranks, and it has sometimes stumbled. Toward the end of the draft in the early 1970s, the Army updated its slogan to say “The Army wants to join you,” and dispatched recruiters on motorcycles to hold “rap sessions” with prospects, talking about how the Army was loosening up on haircuts and early-morning formations, putting beer machines in barracks and teaching sergeants to not to be so square. The Marine Corps quickly made fun of the attempt at cool, and the campaign came to be reviled in the Army as well.
This time, the Army plans to focus on blue cities with traveling interactive exhibits that showcase Army careers in health care, engineering and computing. Its sky-diving team and its touring rock band will work to draw crowds, and top brass will speak at events promoting leadership and patriotism. The Army is also putting hundreds of additional recruiters in the field and increasing enlistment bonuses.
But some experts question whether the plans will make much of an impression on the target audience.
“They need to see that the Army is made up of people like them,” said Emma Moore, who studies Army recruiting at the Center for a New American Security, a research institute in Washington. She added, “Coders, engineers, women — there are a lot of people out there that the Army could use that don’t see themselves as having a place.”
The Seattle recruiters often feel as if they are getting nowhere. Two of them stood for hours at a recent job fair in the shadow of the Space Needle without getting a single prospect. An ultimate Frisbee coach with an engineering degree stopped to talk, but he said later that he did it mostly because they “looked a little lonely.”
At a high school event later in the day, students were happy to sign up to for a skateboard raffle, but none made an appointment to meet with a recruiter.
Even those who walk in to the recruiting station are not a sure bet. Myles Pankey, 19, fit the profile of a blue-city adventure seeker, showing up in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. A year after graduating from one of the city’s top high schools, he was working construction, which paid well but bored him. Following in his accountant father’s footsteps held no appeal, he said; he wanted a challenge.
“If I were you, I’d go infantry,” Vargas told him. “There’s an $11,000 bonus right now if you can ship in a few weeks.”
They talked for more than an hour about opportunities in the Army, but Pankey said he felt pulled in many directions. His mother and father weren’t crazy about him enlisting, he said. His boss, a former Special Forces soldier, had talked up the experience, but another friend who had served in Vietnam called it a terrible idea. None of his high school friends had joined, so he’d be going on his own. He finally told the sergeant he would wait a week before making up his mind.
“I can get a good job here, but I want to serve my country,” Pankey said on his way out. “I guess I have some thinking to do.”