Military branches are facing stiff competition from the job market, as recruiters, military and defense officials all say they are struggling to meet recruitment goals.

The Army has had the hardest time hitting its goals. The military branch had only met 40% of the 57,000-recruit goal as of late June. Each branch has a yearly recruiting goal.

The deficit across all branches is on pace to be the worst since just after the Vietnam War, according to the New York Times.

The Air Force has met its recruiting goal every year since 1999 and is on track to hit its goal for this year, according to Staff Sgt. Mitchell Brock, a local Air Force and Space Force recruiter.

There is no one single explanation why military recruiters are having a tough time. It’s a combination of factors including a shrinking pool of eligible recruits, competitive pay from other industries, the job market and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The competition is out there, and it’s very hard to stay competitive in the job market,” Brock said.

The recruiter said more competitive wages from civilian jobs, work-from-home flexibilities and education perks offered by some employers makes recruiting harder.

With companies such as Amazon, Target and McDonald’s offering tuition assistance, going into the armed services to pay for college isn’t the draw it once was.

“Education isn’t a benefit to join the military,” Brock said. “Ten years ago, it might have been a determining factor for somebody.”

Brock estimates only one in nine people he talks to actually enlist, for whatever reason.

“In other areas, it’s even harder,” he said.

Brock is relatively new at the recruiting game. A native of Beech Grove, he returned to his home state after years overseas.

And Brock is happy to report the greater Kokomo area is nothing like the landscape fellow recruiters describe.

“I have one of the best, if not the best, zone in Indiana,” he said. “The communities are fantastic.”

His recruitment area — called a zone — stretches from north Miami County to Tipton.

The recruiter said he’s had no problem meeting his goals.

Schools have been more than welcoming — being unable to go to schools during the pandemic kneecapped military recruiting. Brock said it usually only takes one phone call to a school to set up a visit.

And recent graduates want to get out after the lockdown. Brock said he doesn’t have to push people to enlist.

“I’ve never had to convince anyone to commit,” he said. “Commitment is bred into the community. There is a lot of integrity. There’s an overabundance of that trait in the area.”

To up enticement, the Army is offering both two-year and six-year contracts, duty stations of choice, being stationed with friends and a $10,000 bonus for recruits who agree to ship out in 30 days.

Other branches are offering $50,000 sign-up and reenlistment bonuses for certain specialties.

“Just like many other businesses right now, we are making leaps for individuals to take advantage of,” Brock said.

But therein lies part of the problem — there aren’t as many individuals.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville testified in front of Congress in May about the shrinking pool. He told lawmakers that 23% of 17- to 24-year-olds are qualified to serve without a waiver. Disqualifying factors include obesity, drug use and criminal records.

“The pool of qualified applicants is tremendously shrinking,” Brock said.

Prescribed medications also limit who can join the military. Brock said a person on anti-depressants must be off the medication for three years before enlisting. Medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) comes with a 24-month wait period.

Military personnel have stressful working environments, and there may be situations where one doesn’t have access to medications. That is why recruits must be able to function without them, Brock said.

The armed services will try their best to work with those interested in joining, Brock added, however, “we can only bend and flex so much.”

The Pentagon is reviewing more than 250 disqualifiers in light of recruiting challenges, including medical conditions, according to NBC News. Ailments such as asthma used to bar someone from service if they had symptoms past their 13th or 14th birthday. The Pentagon is considering reducing the asymptomatic period for certain conditions.

Brock said Navy recruiters are pushing for easing the branch’s rule on tattoos. It would open the door for more people who want to join. The difficulty comes in balancing uniformity and flexibility.

Even lower than the number of eligible recruits is the number who intend to join the military. An internal Defense Department survey found that 9% of younger Americans intended to enlist.

More than half responded they were concerned about emotional, psychological or physical damage after serving.

Hard times in recruiting is set against a backdrop of waning confidence in government institutions, and the military isn’t exempt.

A 2021 survey found that 45% of Americans had trust and confidence in the military, a drop of 25 points since 2018.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.

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