“We made some pretty dramatic changes in this process,” Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon. The service, he said, “had to do some soul-searching” after falling so far short in 2018.
But the service also recalibrated its expectations as it grows from about 476,000 in 2017 to 500,000 in coming years. Last year, the service initially set a goal of bringing in 80,000 recruits, cut it to 76,500 partway through the year and still fell short.
Gen. James C. McConville, the service’s top general, said Tuesday that the Army plans to grow more slowly but still exceeded its plan for 2019. The service intended to have about 478,000 soldiers at the end of the fiscal year closing this month and will exceed that with between 481,000 and 483,000. Several thousand more are ready to go in October, at the beginning of fiscal 2020.
Each of the other services met their recruiting goals in 2018. The Pentagon has not yet announced its numbers for 2019, but the expectation is that it will exceed them again.
The Army’s goal was met despite nationwide unemployment of about 3.7 percent. The service traditionally is able to recruit more people when the economy is weaker.
Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the commanding officer of Army Recruiting Command, cited rising college debt as being part of the equation. The average student has $31,000 in loans, he said, a figure that several studies show to be about accurate.
McCarthy said the Army presents not only a way to pay tuition, but also positions service members in “one of the most extraordinary organizations on Earth.”
“That entire package together is a great opportunity,” he said.
McCarthy said he would turn to an economist to assess whether anything will be done to bring down student debt in the next few years but predicted “it’s probably going to be a very hard trend to change.”
“The cost of education in America continues to rise,” he said.
But a change in strategy by the Army also paid dividends.
Muth and McCarthy said the service saw large improvements in recruiting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, among the 22 cities it emphasized. Overall, the cities averaged a 15 percent increase in enlistment, though some, such as Seattle, fell short.
The efforts in those cities included visits by senior Army leaders, who met with local officials and school administrators and sought to build better relationships.
“More so than anything, we have to do the right thing and go in there and introduce ourselves,” McCarthy said. “They’ve got a tight window every day where they’ve got the kids in the classroom, and they’ve got to get them through the curriculum. A lot of times, it’s just, ‘What is the right venue for us to insert ourselves and come introduce the high school students to the Army?’ ”
The Army has reoriented to focus heavily on generating recruiting leads from esports, online competitions centered on video games. It also established 44 “virtual recruiting stations” in which recruiters contact potential soldiers through text messages and social media. The Army said it gained about 3,000 enlistments from the effort.
Muth left open the possibility that the Army could emphasize specific cities in the future and said he would make recommendations to more senior Army officials within weeks.
“It just gives freedom of action and also quickly adjust, potentially,” he said. “That is in a very early discussion phase. We’re not there yet.”