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Genesis and Exodus: Lessons From the US Army’s Recruiting Failure

The US Army’s recruiting operation is everything you might wish for: professionalised, incentivised, well resourced, and without the contractorization that the British Army has adopted.  It is fully embedded in US high schools and colleges, the centre of gravity1 for ‘first job’ recruitment, where students take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) so graduate already knowing which roles they qualify for.  It offers generous enlistment bursaries and benefits up to $50K(!)2 and enjoys widespread popular awareness, understanding and support, both as an institution and an employer.  In many ways it is the recruiting operation the British Army wishes it had.

Despite this, the US Army abruptly failed to meet its recruiting targets in 2022.  Not by a small margin either but by a quarter, a shortfall of 15,000 recruits,3 more than the entire British Army annual recruiting demand and its worst performance since the draft.4 Last year was little better, missing higher targets by 10,000.  What happened?  And why so suddenly in 2022?  And with every western military struggling to recruit, what can the British Army learn from it? 

It’s the Policy, Stupid.

The US Department of Defense has offered familiar explanations: a strong job market, reduced access to schools during Covid, and reduced inclination to serve among Generations Z and Alpha.5 These reasons will all resonate with British Army recruiters too, but do the numbers add up? 

Yes and no.  Applications to all US military branches dropped 20% during Covid,6 which might correlate with a 25% drop in enlistments two years later.  However, it would be more likely to have impacted in 2021, when the Army was still doing OK.  No more recent data are publicly available, but the DoD doesn’t seem to be citing applications as the main problem.  

Instead, it complains that eligibility has also dropped by 20% in the last ten years, so a fifth fewer young Americans who wanted to join in 2022 were able to.  In fact, it believes only 23% of young people are eligible to join the US military at all.

So far so good, but eligibility is a policy decision.  It’s the Army’s own choice who gets to be eligible or not, and they could revise their own rules.  Americans didn’t suddenly change overnight, and recruiting was doing alright before 2022.7  In 2019 a recruiting officer even declared that eligibility was no worse it had ever been.8 Clearly societal factors like obesity, falling academic scores, disbarring behaviours, or worse mental health, all have an impact over time, but not suddenly by 20% in a year.  So, what new eligibility policies did the US Army introduce in 2022?

Well, arguably they didn’t.  What they did do, though, is start fully enforcing the ones they already had, specifically the medical policies, just like we did in 20049 when our inflow also plummeted by about 20%.10  Enter Project GENESIS.11

Medical Policy

The GENESIS health system was introduced in February 2022, giving US recruiting staff unprecedented access to candidates’ medical histories.  For the first time, they could not conceal undeclared medical issues and in a country with no national healthcare system like the USA candidates used to be able to hide a lot.

Recruiters also used to ignore anything medical that they thought was minor, and challenging recruiting targets meant they had strong incentive to do so.  Now they can’t.  ‘Military Times’ quotes one as saying: “now that GENESIS exists, we can no longer hide things”.  Another claimed: “When GENESIS hit the scene, it was a night-and-day difference.  There are still people who are eager to join, it’s just really, really, hard to actually get them in.”12

The head of Recruiting Command has conceded that GENESIS means delays are now caused by “something that happened 7 years ago, and they have to locate those records”.13  Even if that doesn’t create more medical failures, which is hard to believe, GENESIS certainly causes much more delay and complexity in the recruiting process.14  This creates an exodus of frustrated candidates into the booming civilian job market.15 

This will sound depressingly familiar to British Army recruiters, too.  Civilian employment options are also at a historic high and medical issues are also the biggest reasons for delay and frustration.  According to a 2017 report for the Defence Select Committee, medical issues account for 93% of all British Army candidate rejections.16

Just let that sink in for a moment.  93% of all British Army rejections are for medical reasons.  The next biggest factor quoted, tattoos, is less than 4%.  Other publicly available data suggest UK medical failures might be closer to 60%,17 or perhaps 80%,18 but that still makes medical the single most important element of the British Army recruiting process by a massive margin.  

US Army figures won’t be identical, but in 2010 half of young Americans couldn’t meet medical standards.19  Americans haven’t got any slimmer or healthier since then, so GENESIS will have pushed that proportion up, probably into the same 60% to 90% rejection space as the UK.  

Other Policies

Medical policy is hard to change, partly because there could be risk to life if you get it wrong, and partly because only doctors understand it, and no-one else can understand them.  Hence, the US Army is trying to relax as many other standards as it can get away with, notably tattoos,20 marijuana use,21 or allowing calculators during the 1 ½ hour ASVAB.22  For about a week they also dropped the need for a high school diploma (equivalent to about 5 GCSEs)23 but that was quickly reversed.24  It looked too much like desperation, with shades of Forrest Gump and Bubba Blue.

Forrest and Bubba weren’t real but the Vietnam War’s ‘Project 100,000, New Standards’ programme they represent was.25  The ‘new’ standards were lower, inevitably, but still above the WW2 and Korean War levels their senior ranks had to meet.  Overnight, this policy change increased the eligible recruiting pool by 30%, bringing in 45,000 extra soldiers each year.26  New Standards men had similar training success rates to other recruits and met the same output standards, albeit some needed more time.  Over 90% proved to be “fully satisfactory servicemen”.27

Despite this apparent success the US Army remains embarrassed by New Standards, which is still a trope for the worst aspects of the Vietnam War.  Despite having much more demanding education and cognition policies than most other armies (yes, really), lowering them in the modern all-volunteer force remains a red line.  For now. 

Instead, the US Army has thrown its weight and some $214 million28 behind the Future Soldier Preparatory Course (FSPC).29  Introduced mid-2022, this offers an up-to 90-day training programme for candidates below entry standards like body mass or cognition score, but who meet all other requirements.  With a capacity of 12,000, more than 10,000 recruits who previously would have been rejected joined basic training via the FSPC in 2023.  

Lessons from America

Since the FSPC stood up, the US Army has increased its recruiting inflow by about 10,000,30 the same number who passed the course.  Go figure, as our cousins would say.  They also seem to have achieved this without improving applications much – public data is sketchy.  Still, the relaunch of their much-loved (by senior officers) “Be All You Can Be” 1980s marketing campaign fell flat when its Hollywood star actor got arrested.31

Lesson 1 seems to be that recruiting the available people who actually want to join you works, but you might need to compromise.  Either help them to reach your entry standards or reduce those standards and meet them halfway.  Both the FSPC and ‘New Standards’ approaches are essentially the same formula: policy is relaxed to let in people who “aren’t good enough”, more training and development is given to them as needed, and the final trained output remains unchanged.  The FSPC’s modern spin is that it is “before basic”32 so the US Army can honestly state that its entry standards haven’t changed, unlike the Vietnam War.  That may be so, but it is also irrelevant. 

Lesson 2 is that medical policy is a real problem for modern professional armies.  It’s not just the 60% to 90% rejection rate, which would have Vilfredo Pareto tugging at your sleeve in any case; it’s the huge amount of time, delay, complexity, and cost the process generates for everyone involved, especially candidates, who give up in frustration.  Increasingly better healthcare and electronic record-keeping combined with ever-decreasing corporate risk appetites make it harder and harder for responsible Armies to ignore medical issues that would have been invisible in the past.

The same also applies to all other recruitment policies too, if you allow it to: demanding exquisite systems is just as much of a problem in recruiting as in every other area of Defence procurement.  For example, when more than 75% of the US population lives in a state with legal marijuana use, having a policy that bans anyone who’s given it a try seems a bit excessive.  

Lesson 3 is that there are no easy answers.  If you really want to fix recruiting, you have to do something, and that will require resources, effort, and compromise.  The US Army still has a long way to go, but after 18 months and $214 million, it has increased its annual inflow by 10,000 recruits, more than the 20% fall in national eligibility, and more than we usually recruit in a year.  

That’s impressive and makes you wonder why we couldn’t do the same.  FSPC is only one side of the coin and improving applications is also essential, but that takes time and FSPC is plugging the dyke for now.  The US Army still needs do better, though, so watch this space for further compromise.  The US Navy has just announced that it’s dropping its high school diploma requirement33 and the US Air Force’s marijuana-waiver trial has proven three times more successful than expected.34

So, What Can We Learn from the US Army?

Well, the obvious answer for the British Army is to sack Capita,35 get more AFCOs,36 recruit more women,37 stop trying so hard to be visibly diverse,38 tell Gen Z to buck their ideas up,39 and reintroduce conscription,40 especially for anyone who is unemployed or a criminal.41

That’s the sum of public discourse regarding British Army recruiting, with each proponent touting their single-issue solution as an obvious panacea.  In the real world, though, even conscription doesn’t help much if barely anyone can meet your entry policies, however many AFCOs you’ve got.  That’s why sensible armies make those policies much more flexible when needed – the famous “Bantam Battalions” of the Great War would not have passed the medical when war was declared.

Modern candidates are more likely to have documented episodes of common but minor mental conditions, be neurodivergent, or just be overweight or physically unfit, compared to any previous generation.  That means they can’t join even when they want to, although in some cases time and effort might reverse the problem.  That’s where initiatives like the FSPC come in.

The British Army’s Soldier Development Course (SDC) was the basis for the US Army’s FSPC, but our version has nothing like that scale or ambition.  With capacity for only 5% of the regular recruits we need42 it anecdotally usually runs half-empty.  At only a month long it is also too short to support weight-management programmes successfully.  

Expanding and extending the SDC might be a good place to start.  Perhaps changing the model to get third parties like Military Training Colleges43 to increase capacity cheaply, or use Army Reserve Training Units, or even Capita’s Fire Service College facility (formerly RAF Moreton-in-Marsh).44  The US Navy has launched its own FSPC45 and the US Army is increasing its own capacity to 23,500.46

Concurrently, the British Army also needs to examine its medical policies and how and when they are delivered.  Medical selection is by far the most important part of recruit selection, but it is only finalised at the end of the process, almost as an afterthought.  That’s frustrating for recruiters and candidates alike, who can spend months getting to that point only to find they were never eligible in the first place.  

Taking more risk in our medical policy is also essential, however irresponsible that sounds.  Not everything medical is risk-to-life or duty of care.  For example, being 12 months clear of ADHD symptoms has more to do with ensuring someone will be trainable at Basic, and the timescale is a bit arbitrary.  Shortening the delay or accepting less comprehensive proof there is no “dysfunctional behaviour”47 would be a training or employment risk that the recruit might not finish Basic in the time we’ve given them, not a medical risk to their health.  Or, we could test how trainable they really are by putting them straight onto an expanded SDC, not spend a year watching them drift away.

The most important lesson we can learn from the US Army, though, is that if you really want to fix recruiting you need to actually do something.  Americans see recruiting as a national security problem that they need to fix, quickly, before the big war that’s already started goes fully noisy.  They’ve taken steps to do that, and these seem to be working.  

By contrast, we’ve become addicted to not solving the problem, hoping that a magic wand will make it go away: ‘better’ applicants, a new contractor, the next marketing campaign, a recession, a new war, or another drawdown.  It’s not a convincing way to recruit a professional Army, and a cynic might suggest that we don’t really want to.  Being understrength must be a big saving in personnel costs.

The current generations are the only ones we’ve got, and nearly 100,000 of them already try to join us every year.48  Recruiting more of these people who actively want to be soldiers must be part of any credible solution, and to do that we need to look honestly and creatively at how we can help them.  

Whether that’s by changing policy, like ‘New Standards’, or enhancing training, like FSPC, or making the recruiting process easier by taking more calculated risks, or all the above, doesn’t matter.  As long as the output standards stay the same and, crucially, the quantity of trained soldiers goes up.  

The evidence from the US Army is that workable solutions exist, but we are choosing not to apply them.

Captain Plume

Captain Plume has formerly served as both a regular and a reservist, and has recruited for both the Army Reserve and Territorial Army for more than 20 years.

Footnotes

  1. ADP Land Operations (2017).  A centre of gravity is defined as “the characteristics, capabilities or localities from which a… grouping derives its freedom of action, physical strength or will” – Army Doctrine Publication: operations (updated 31 March 2017) (publishing.service.gov.uk)
  2. US ARIC (2022). Army offers up to $50k in enlistment incentives > U.S. ARMY RECRUITING COMMAND > U.S. Army Recruiting News
  3. Army Times (2022). Army misses recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers (armytimes.com)
  4. Forces Net (2023). Worst recruitment since 1973 is not due to ‘wokeness’, US Army survey suggests (forces.net)
  5. Camarillo, G., (2023). 20230322 – USA – SASC Recruiting and Retention (Cleared).pdf (senate.gov)
  6. USA Facts(2024). Is US military enlistment down? (usafacts.org)
  7. USAREC (2022). Facts and Figures (army.mil)
  8. War on the Rocks (2019). The Sky is Not Falling: How Conventional Wisdom About the Recruiting Environment is Awry – War on the Rocks
  9. MOD (2006). The Government’s Response to the Deepcut Review Presented to Parliament by The Secretary of State for Defence By Command of Her Majesty CM 6851 (publishing.service.gov.uk)
  10. National Statistics (2007).  UK Defence Statistics Compendium 2007
  11. USMEPCOM (2022). Military Entrance Processing Stations roll out MHS GENESIS > USMEPCOM > Article View (army.mil)
  12. Military Times (2023).  The ‘Genesis’ of today’s recruiting crisis (militarytimes.com)
  13. Military.com (2023).  Army Sees Signs it Might Hit Recruiting Target This Year | Military.com
  14. Task & Purpose (2022).  How the military’s MHS Genesis is screwing over Army recruiters (taskandpurpose.com)
  15. US Department of Labor (2023). Job openings reach record highs in 2022 as the labor market recovery continues : Monthly Labor Review: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov)
  16. Francois, M. (2017). [Page 6]. Filling the Ranks – Report on the State of Recruiting into the United Kingdom Armed Forces – by the Rt Hon Mark Francois MP 26.07.17.pdf
  17. MOD FOI Response (2017).  Number of successful and unsuccessful applicants into the army from financial years 2015 to June 2017 (publishing.service.gov.uk)
  18. UK Defence Journal (2024) Over 125,000 applicants rejected from British Army (ukdefencejournal.org.uk)
  19. Mission: Readiness (2009). MR-Ready-Willing-Unable.pdf (missionreadiness.org)
  20. Military.com (2022). Army Relaxes Tattoo Rules as It Scrambles for New Recruits | Military.com
  21. Politico (2023). Matt Gaetz proposes end to cannabis testing for military – POLITICO
  22. Military.com (2023). Pentagon Set to Allow Calculator Use on Military Entrance Exam as Recruiting Slumps | Military.com
  23. The Good Schools Guide (2024).  From American schools to British (National Curriculum for England, IGCSEs, A Levels) | The Good Schools Guide
  24. Defense One (2022). After Criticism, Army Reinstates High School Diploma Requirement as Recruitment Plummets – Defense One
  25. U.S. Department of Defense (1972). ‘Project 100,000: New Standards Program’. The project name refers to an annual enlistment target across all five Services, not just the US Army.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. USA Today (2023) Army recruiting crisis: These $200M fit camps get soldiers into shape (usatoday.com)
  29. US Army (2022). Army announces creation of Future Soldier Preparatory Course | Article | The United States Army
  30. Military.com (2023).  One Recruiting Environment, Two Different Outcomes for Army and Marine Corps | Military.com
  31. CNC News (2023).  U.S. army pulls ads with Jonathan Majors following actor’s arrest | CBC News
  32. Breaking Defense (2023).  Before Basic: Amid recruiting crunch, Army expands Future Soldier Prep Course – Breaking Defense
  33. Navy Times (2024).  Navy to allow those without high school diploma or GED to enlist (navytimes.com)
  34. Military.com (2023).  Air Force’s Marijuana Waiver Program Proves More Popular Among Applicants Than Expected | Military.com
  35. GB News (2024). Army recruitment has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’ admits former armed forces minister (gbnews.com)
  36. Lord Dannett quoted in the Telegraph (2024). Allowing beards ‘won’t fix Army staffing problem’, says Ben Wallace (telegraph.co.uk)
  37. The Dail Mail (2024). Female army recruits are the key to solving the Armed Forces’ recruitment crisis, says Grant Shapps | Daily Mail Online
  38. The Telegraph (2024). I’m a white male – the Army no longer actively tries to recruit men like me (msn.com)
  39. The Independent (2024). Armed forces recruitment crisis due to Gen Z not joining up, Ben Wallace warns | The Independent
  40. Sky News (2024). Time to ‘think the unthinkable’ and consider UK conscription, says Britain’s former top NATO commander | UK News | Sky News
  41. Evening Standard (2024). Unemployed people who consistently turn down work should be conscripted, says Tory MP Richard Drax (msn.com)
  42. The Guardian (2020). Overweight, unfit or shy? The British army still wants you | Military | The Guardian
  43. MPCT (2024). Military Preparation College for Training – MPCT
  44. Capita (2024). Home (fireservicecollege.ac.uk)
  45. Military.com (2023). Navy Follows Army in Offering Prep Courses to Recruits Who Don’t Meet Fitness, Academic Standards | Military.com
  46. Military.com (2024). Army Expanding Pre-Basic Training Prep Courses to Bring in More Soldiers and Curb Recruiting Crisis | Military.com
  47. MOD (2018). Joint_Service_Manual_of_Medical_Fitness.pdf (parliament.uk)
  48. MOD (2024). Quarterly Service Personnel Statistics: 2024 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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