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Recruiting and Retention in the Active Component Military: Are There Problems?

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Publication Date: February 2002

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL31297

Topic: Military and defense (Military service)


This report provides information on recruiting and retention trends in the active component of the armed forces since 1989, including recruiting and retention shortfalls that occurred within the past few years; the congressional and executive branch response to these shortfalls; and an assessment of the current situation. Additionally, it contains an analysis of factors that may have an impact on recruiting and retention in the future, and discusses policy options that could be considered to minimize any negative effects that these factors might cause.

In recent years, the Military Services have experienced recruiting and retention shortfalls for their active component forces. The Army, Navy, and Air Force had trouble meeting their goals for new recruits (also known as "accessions") in the late 1990s, and all of the Services experienced declines in the quality of their recruits from the early 1990s to 2000. With respect to retention, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had difficulty meeting their retention goals for enlisted personnel in the late 1990s, and the Navy and Air Force are still having some problems today. Also, concerns have been raised about low retention rates in certain critical specialties and a declining retention rate among younger officers.

Cited causes of recruiting shortfalls in the late 1990s include the residual effects of the post-Cold War drawdown, competition with a robust civilian economy, competition with institutions of higher education, demographic and attitudinal changes among younger Americans, and a need for more recruiting resources. Commonly cited causes of retention shortfalls include competition with the civilian economy and job dissatisfaction due to a variety of factors, including the nature and pace of current military operations, a lack of critical supplies and equipment, "quality of life" issues, and changes in the military culture. However, the data used to ascertain the causes of these shortfalls have often been rather limited.

Congress and the executive branch have initiated or modified a number of policies in response to these shortfalls. Most notably, Congress provided more money for recruiters, advertising, enlistment bonuses and re-enlistment bonuses, as well as increasing military pay and improving retirement benefits. The executive branch refocused its advertising, provided its recruiters with more and better resources, launched several programs designed to expand the pool of potential enlistees, and began working on ways to better manage deployments. Additionally, other policy changes have been made, most notably with respect to improving military housing benefits and reimbursements for moves.

These policy changes and other factors appear to have had the desired effect, at least in the short term. In fiscal years 2000 and 2001, all of the Services met their quantity goals for new recruits. Recruit quality in fiscal year 2001 was slightly better than it had been the previous year. With respect to retention, the data indicate improvements in some areas. In spite of these positive signs, a number of longer term factors -- such as demographic, attitudinal, and lifestyle shifts -- could have a negative impact on recruiting and retention in the future.