These are dark days for army recruitment.
The Army, Navy and Air Force tried almost everything in their power to bring in new men. They relaxed recruiting standards, established remedial schools for recruits who can’t pass entrance tests, and offered signing bonuses worth up to $75,000. However, this year the three services together failed by more than 25,000 recruits.
Military leaders say there are so few Americans willing and able to serve, and so many civilian employers vying for them, that it is nearly impossible to train enough people in uniform.
Tell that to the Marines.
The Marine Corps ended its recruiting year on Sept. 30 having met 100 percent of its goal, with hundreds of contracts already signed for next year.
The Corps did this by holding strict recruiting standards and offering almost no benefits. When asked earlier this year if the Marine Corps would offer additional money to attract recruits, the commandant of the Marine Corps replied, “Your bonus is that you can call yourself a Marine. That’s your bonus.”
In a nutshell, that’s the Marine Corps’ marketing strategy: dismiss financial incentives as chump change compared to the honor of joining the Corps. Ditch the idea of military service as a stepping stone to civilian career opportunities. Instead, dangle the promise of a chance to be a part of something intangible, timeless and elite.
It’s more than a little mystifying to the other branches of the services, because the Marine Corps—a quick-reaction force made up of light, highly mobile infantry, armor, and escorting attack aircraft—isn’t all that different from the rest of the military. Except in his furious insistence that he is. But mystifying or not, the message works.
At the Marine Corps Recruiting Headquarters for the state of Arizona on a recent morning, Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Burrell reflected on what might be the hardest part of finding enough recruits this year. Nothing occurred to me.
“We’re in a good position to deliver more than planned,” he said, adding that Arizona recruiters already have a large number of recruits signed for next year.
Sergeant Burrell said he simply tells young people – mostly men – what the Marine Corps offers: “An opportunity to call yourself a Marine, to earn that title.”
“But I have to tell people that it’s not for everyone,” he quickly added.
Katherine Kuzminski, who studies military personnel issues at the Center for a New American Security, said the harsh and coy message from the Marines — broadcast via advertisements, postersand short words of hard-bodied Marines — little has changed in 50 years.
“The message they’re selling is, ‘You should be happy to be one of us,'” she said. “Advertising for the Marines markets this vision of a disciplined corps that sleeps on the ground, eats dirt, and fights dragons. For certain people, it had a lasting appeal.”
To be sure, the Marines don’t have to fill nearly as many boots as the Army. And it outsources many of its non-combat jobs to the Navy, so comparing the different branches is difficult. Still, Ms. Kuzminski said, the mystique the Marine Corps has managed to build around itself has young people confidently lining up to join.
The Marine Corps exceeded its enrollment goal of 28,900 this year, and also exceeded goals for officers and reservists. It offered a few bonuses, but they were small and limited to a few hard-to-fill PC jobs.
The real secret, the Marines say, is consistency: The Corps stuck to the well-worn message that they are looking for a “proud few” to fight the nation’s battles.
Other branches changed frequently, trying to find something that would have the same resonance. The military has gone through at least four recruiting slogans in the past 20 years, then reverted in 2023 to its 1980s standby: “Be all you can be.”
It didn’t help. In the year ending Sept. 30, the military wanted to recruit 65,000 active-duty soldiers, but ended up with about 50,000. It was the third straight year the military missed its target, forcing the active-duty military to cut unfilled positions to 452,000 troops, down from 485,000 in 2021..
“This is an existential issue for us,” Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth told reporters earlier this month.
The military is by far the largest branch and has to find the most recruits every year. But other branches face similar problems.
The Navy began offering cash bonuses and a student loan repayment program, raised the maximum enlistment age from 39 to 41, and took the maximum number of Category IV recruits, who score fairly low on military aptitude tests. It barely met its goal last year, and is about 7,500 sailors short this year.
Even the Air Force, once able to rely on draft picks, stumbled this year, falling about 10 percent short of its goal of 26,877 new airmen.
“It’s getting harder to recruit, and the military expects it to continue to get harder,” said David R. Segal, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who has studied recruiting trends for decades.
For one thing, about 77 percent of young people don’t meet eligibility requirements because they’re overweight, or have disqualifying mental or physical conditions or drug use problems, according to the Department of Defense report.
Recruiters have long known that the biggest factor in a young person’s decision to apply is whether a prospect has a trusted mentor — a parent, relative, coach or teacher — who has served. But the military has been shrinking for decades, and the service has become concentrated in a few regions and demographics, so those mentoring relationships are becoming rarer.
The Marines have an advantage on this front, Mr. Segal said. The other branches rely heavily on career professionals who remain in uniform for many years. But the vast majority of Marines are combat troops who serve only one four-year enlistment.
“That means you have all these young, capable people who love the Marines, coming back to their neighborhood and telling their story,” he said. “It’s a huge, informal recruiting force.”
The Army plans to change the way it finds new soldiers, in part by looking for new recruits who have graduated from college and are looking for a major. The Navy and Air Force also have strategies for better outreach, including an Air Force program that offers free flying lessons.
The Marines have no plans to change.
For decades, Marine Corps recruiters have placed 11 small metal “benefit tags” in front of potential recruits, each listing a reason for joining the Corps. Pick the ones you like, say recruiters. Some of the labels cite tangible benefits such as financial security and professional development, but most are for intangibles such as courage, discipline, challenge and pride of belonging.
People who choose material benefit labels are often encouraged to try one of the other branches instead. Those drawn to intangibles, recruiters say, are likely to become Marines.
Sergeant Burrell, a recruiter in Arizona, said that when he was considering joining the Marines more than a decade ago, he asked recruiters for a bonus. The recruiter replied that if he wanted money, he should go somewhere else. He enlisted in the Marines anyway.
“I guess I just wanted to prove my worth,” he said. “There’s a lot of value in that.”