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The military services collectively need to recruit more than 200,000 new members each year. While recruiting for any company is a numbers game, the Military is not Google; the way the Military needs to attract and screen candidates fundamentally differs from what works in the private sector. A few factors clearly set the Military apart from other employers:

The Military holds its recruits to incredibly high physical, legal and mental standards. Organizational recruiters are always looking for the best candidates for the job, but what about when the job has intense physical and psychological components? To ensure force readiness, the Military has strict requirements in place to be eligible to enlist into one of the Services. Applicants must meet weight, physical fitness, mental health, conduct, education, and dependents standards. Off the bat, this disqualifies nearly three quarters of youth from enlisting in the Military.

The Military doesn’t have a brand recognition problem; it has a brand association problem. Companies constantly seek to get their name out there by attending career fairs, conferences, school recruiting events, and other professional association events. Whereas companies often are seeking to make their organization known to candidates, the Military faces a different challenge altogether. Although everyone knows what the Military is, few are interested in serving or know anything about service members’ lifestyle. Instead, many rely on immediate associations with the military brand; thoughts of combat, war, and isolation are the top, or even the only, things the market associates with the Military.

The Military has a greater need to be representative, and representative means something different.  It is no secret that many companies, particularly those in the tech sector, struggle with racial/ethnic or gender diversity. How often, though, do companies assess whether they’re pulling too heavily from a particular city or state? The Military strives to reflect the nation to maintain a strong connection between the Military and society.  As an All-Volunteer Force, the Military’s connection to the nation is not only a desired value but also important for facilitating recruiting efforts. Those who know service members, or see them in their community, are more likely to see behind the curtains of military service into the careers and lifestyle it offers.

Despite these differences, there are still opportunities for the Military to capitalize on recruiting strategies more regularly employed in the private sector:

Applicant tracking and referrals. Most organizations have centralized applicant tracking systems, where they can quickly capture information about each applicant and their progress through the application process. Although recruiters increasingly have technology to make the logistical part of recruiting (capturing information, keeping track of applicants) easier, there is still room for improvement. For example, recruiters are constantly reaching out to leads to gauge their interest or potential eligibility. A single application can require a recruiter reach out to dozens of individuals before they speak with someone who is interested in serving (or, even potentially eligible to serve). This gets worse when you consider that each Service, is wondering the same thing: Are you eligible to serve, and are you interested in military careers? Let’s say an active duty recruiter from Service A speaks to someone who is interested, but not qualified for service. A recruiter from Service B sees this same individual on their list of leads. Do they know that someone has already reached out to this individual and learned they are not eligible to serve? What about the Service A’s Reserve, or officer recruiters? How many different recruiters will spend time calling this individual only to find out the same information? How does this make the individual feel? Did anyone talk to the individual about working for the DoD as a civilian? What if recruiters had a better way of communicating with one another? Technology has created the potential for seamlessness in the application process, so recruiters in the private sector know about past interactions their company’s recruiters have had with an applicant. Have they applied to positions in the past? Did they go through the interview process and were deemed not to be a good fit? All of these pieces of information are critical for making the recruiting process better for recruiters and applicants alike.

Recruiting for a job (and a career), not a company. Google continually tops Fortune’s list of best companies to work for, but would you accept a position at Google without knowing what the job actually was? Will you be an engineer? Or a groundskeeper? What will your career look like in 5 or 10 years in that position? Corporate recruiting is driven by specific jobs and needs; candidates review the job, evaluate whether they think they’re a good fit for the job and the company, and decide whether to accept an offer. Almost inevitably, however, military applicants accept without knowing with any certainty their specialty or actual day-to-day job. Providing recruits with greater certainty not only about the job they’ll be doing in year one, but also in years 4, 5, 6, and beyond can help shed some light on how the Military can help you grow your career. There will always be a degree of uncertainty driven by Service needs; however, uncertainty about jobs and career paths loom over the enlistment decision as a result.

Leaning into skill development and transfer. The skills we learn in one job transfer to another, a fact that has implications for how organizations and the Military should recruit. Consider someone debating a career change: Do they understand how the skills they learned in their previous job would prepare them for success in a new career field? After all, there’s more similarity across disparate jobs than we would think. Beyond helping Service Members transfer to a civilian career, the Military should also consider how it is communicating the transfer of skills into and out of military service. In what ways do the skills you’ve already learn set you up for success in the Military? How will the Military provide you with sustainable and marketable skills that further your career? Although those joining the Military will stay with it for longer than the average career at a tech giant, they are acutely aware of the fact that they will transition to a civilian career at some point. The Military should consider skill development and transfer not only in its transition support programs, but also in its recruiting messaging.

All said, there is a lot that makes the Military unique. Despite this fact, there’s much that the Military can learn from private sector recruiting. In response to the challenging recruiting market most Services face today, many are starting pilot tests to address these needs. However, any efforts to modernize recruiting should balance and embrace the things that make the Military, and each Service, unique.

About the author

Michael Karim, Ph.D.

Michael Karim, Ph.D.

As the director of Military Recruiting Research, Dr. Michael Karim helps the Department of Defense (DOD) understand the individual, social, and environmental factors that drive interest in military service. Through combining insights gained from survey, geographic, qualitative, and behavioral data, Michael has helped FMG provide DOD with a better understanding of the recruiting landscape.

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