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Struggling to recruit, the Pentagon may be tens of thousands of troops short by 2023


The military faces a recruiting crunch so bad that some lawmakers are calling for hearings. The Pentagon could be tens of thousands of troops short by next year. Even North Carolina is having trouble signing up new service members, and it's typically in the top five for recruiting. But now the Army expects to fall 30% short of its annual recruiting goal in the state. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The Army is struggling the most. To hit its upcoming annual targets, it needs more Faith Thompsons. The 22-year-old aspiring combat medic walked in the Burlington, N.C., recruiter's office one recent afternoon. She was dropping off some paperwork ahead of shipping out next month. Thompson has thought about enlisting ever since an encounter with recruiters at the state fair when she was 6 years old. She seemed almost puzzled at the question of why someone her age wouldn't consider the military.

FAITH THOMPSON: You have your housing paid for. You get a lot of educational assistance, a lot of educational opportunities. Those who are eligible for bonuses, they get bonuses. Insurance...

PRICE: Thompson says her friends don't quite get it.

THOMPSON: They say, you know, why do you want to sign your life away for four years? You know, you're not going to have any freedoms. As far as them not wanting to go in, a lot of them are in relationships. They don't want to leave that. Or they're scared. It's a big change. And that's a lot to take in for a lot of people. And some people just don't want to put in the work.

PRICE: Experts think that attitude, a shift away from the work part of the work-life balance, is one reason for the recruiting crunch - an issue civilian employers face, too. Recruiters already had been fighting some long-term trends for decades. Rising obesity rates and other physical and mental issues have left just 23% of young Americans eligible to serve. These challenges remain. But now there are more.

KEVIN VEREEN: We've offered a bunch of incentives.

PRICE: Major General Kevin Vereen leads the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. He says the Army is offering incentives it never has before - enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000, a $35,000 bonus for shipping out quickly, even the option to choose where you're first stationed.

VEREEN: So when you look at the incentives and what we were offering, what was surprising to us was we're not getting enough people to want to even take part and try to even receive the incentives.

PRICE: He says the number of potential recruits scoring well enough on the armed forces vocational aptitude test has fallen sharply, apparently because high school academics suffered during the first years of the pandemic. But all the causes aren't clear. Beth Asch is a senior economist with the RAND Corporation. She's studied defense manpower issues for nearly 40 years.

BETH ASCH: There's some real changes going on in the economy that are emerging and are not well understood about what that means for the military.

PRICE: She says there are several potential causes, including those shifting attitudes about work-life balance and a loss in confidence in the military as an institution; also, a trend that the military has long cited - the growing social divide that's left few civilians with a real sense of what military life is like. But there's not enough research yet to understand what may be a complex tangle of causes.

ASCH: There's a temptation to focus on everyone's sort of pet argument. Like, if you think this is about, you know, the military-civilian divide, you'll talk about that. You'll talk about things like sexual harassment and those sorts of issues in the military. I think we need to take a holistic view on this and explore the entire spectrum of potential causes.

PRICE: Earlier this summer, the Army decided to admit recruits who hadn't completed high school or earned a GED but quickly backed away after a public outcry. It is, though, creating a kind of pre-boot camp with tutoring for those who need slightly higher test scores and help for those who need to drop a few pounds to qualify. Beth Asch mostly thinks the Army is taking smart steps, and after watching recruiting ups and downs for decades, she thinks the Pentagon will get it back on track.

ASCH: What they'll do is they'll throw a lot of resources at it. They'll adapt. They'll increase waivers. They'll do the kind of steps they're taking.

PRICE: She says that will still leave questions, the how questions - how long it will take, how hard it will be and how much it will cost. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Burlington, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.