Uncle Sam may want Generation Z, but the feeling doesn't seem to be mutual.
That's the conclusion recruiters relayed to General Frank Muth, the head of Army Recruiting Command, last July when he spoke with them to figure out why the Army fell short of its recruiting goal by 6,500 people in the last fiscal year.
In an effort to ramp up recruitment, the Army this year is trying something different.
As part of a new strategy, the Army is rethinking its approach toward Generation Z — those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s — by going digital, getting creative about selling itself and expanding efforts in different parts of the country.
The Army has shifted its focus from more conservative parts of the U.S. that traditionally fill its ranks — locations across the South from Virginia to Texas — towards 22 left-leaning cities across the country, like Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.
Recruiters and senior military leaders are having discussions with local community leaders and increasing their presence in these more progressive cities. It has sent recruiters to events like the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, the Boston Marathon and a job fair in the shadow of the Seattle Space Needle.
It has also expanded its presence online — having recruiters throw up a meme about how the GI bill pays for college, even playing in an electronic sports (e-sports) video game tournament.
In these spaces, Muth hopes the Army can start a dialogue with potential recruits at a time when 50-year lows in unemployment numbers mean that young people have plenty of other job prospects.
Starting a dialogue
"Calling the Z generation on the phone doesn't work anymore," Muth said in an interview with NPR's Leila Fadel. "We're really giving the power back to our recruiters to go on Twitter, to go on Twitch, to go on Instagram, and use that as a venue to start a dialogue with the Z generation."
In this dialogue, Muth hopes to clear up some misperceptions among Generation Z about the Army. He said these range from anything like the belief that you're not allowed to own a dog or car while serving, to larger, more serious ones, such as fears that the Army is an unfriendly environment for minorities or women.
Muth said the Army is trying to achieve a higher representation of both women and minorities within their ranks.
Another misconception Muth said exists is that serving in the Army is dangerous. He said only a small percentage of those in the Army directly participate in active land combat. The rest work in a variety of around 150 different jobs.
"It's not just about being in the infantry or the armory or combat roles. Across the board we've got combat photography, we've got medical, engineering, cyber, IT," Muth said. "There's a lot of different ways to serve. "
Incentive to serve
The variety of potential jobs offered is one of the selling points that the Army is using to attract young people. Another enticement, Muth said, is the promise of free college.
"That is huge selling point," he said. "I just paid for 2 years 2 months of college for my son and two years, two months for my daughter utilizing my GI bill. We saved $90,000 by doing that."
Another enticement the Army uses to bait young people is signing bonuses, which can go as high as $40,000, depending on one's military operational specialty. The average signing bonus, Muth said, is $12,000.
Army ventures into e-sports
Out of all the online platforms for recruitment, Muth said Instagram is "it" right now, but he is excited about the potential in e-sports.
"It is incredible, the amount of coverage that you get and the amount of the Z Gens that are watching these games," he said.
For example, he said that one Army recruiter went on the air as an e-sports announcer in a tournament, and within 24 hours, they had 2 million views. Of those views, half were from people aged 17 to 24.
To further recruitment efforts in the e-Sports community, active duty military try out for the Army e-sports team, and if they qualify, they are moved to Fort Knox to be on the team. At Fort Knox, they also get trained on becoming a recruiter before they enter into an e-sports tournament.
For the upcoming year, Muth is unsure what the Army's goal for recruitment numbers will be, but thinks it will be lower than the goal of 76,500 people they had last year. In general, he remains optimistic about recruiting Gen Z'ers.
"Here's what we're finding different as we've shifted from the millennials to the Z Generation. Z Generation, they do want to be part of something bigger," he said. "They do want to give back. They do want to serve and they want to get out there and be part of something other than just being about themselves."
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In the last fiscal year, the Army fell short of its recruiting goal by 6,500 people. In part, it's driven by the 50-year lows in unemployment numbers. Often, young recruits join when they don't have a job prospect or money for college. And so the Army is getting creative about selling itself, shifting its focus from places that traditionally fill its ranks - conservative parts of the country from Virginia through the South and into Texas - to 22 left-leaning cities across the country, like Boston, Seattle and San Francisco. Joining us now to discuss this new strategy is Gen. Frank Muth, the head of the Army Recruiting Command. Gen. Muth, thanks so much for being with us.
FRANK MUTH: Thank you so much for taking the time to have a discussion about this great topic.
FADEL: So why don't you start by telling me - what's the thinking behind this strategy? It's a pretty big pivot.
MUTH: It's a huge pivot. So with us not making mission last year, we wanted to truly look at some of the issues that were going on to try to accomplish the mission for this year. And we started with how we were recruiting. Calling the Z Generation on the phone doesn't work anymore.
MUTH: They want to meet us online first, find out, one, if - are we a bot that's just probing them for information? Or are we a real person? And once that dialogue starts online, then it leads to a discussion on the phone. And then that leads to an interview. And it all starts with providing information about, you know, the Army's got 150 different jobs. There's the GI Bill when they get out to pay for college - all the different benefits for serving the military. But it has to start with reaching the Z Generation on the digital plane.
FADEL: So when you're shifting to these urban areas, is there anything you're doing specifically to talk to urban minorities about this, especially at a time where the military's being leaned on at the border and that get sometimes seen as part of a politicized, racially motivated fight between the administration and his opponents?
MUTH: Yeah, no. You know, the recruiters talk about the opportunities that exist in the Army, all the different specialties, all the different training, the qualifications that you get while you're in the Army and what you leave with.
FADEL: In urban spaces, among women, among minority communities who must ask questions about issues of racism and sexism in the military, what do your recruiters say to those questions?
MUTH: You know, I'm sure they tell stories that are very positive. I mean, because, you know, we don't hear about it. So they tell their Army story, essentially.
FADEL: But there are stories where certain communities are treated differently at times. And I'm just wondering how they allay those fears and how they say you are also welcome.
MUTH: You know, I'm not going to put words in their mouths. But I would suspect that they say...
FADEL: How would you do it?
MUTH: How would I do it?
FADEL: Mmm hmm.
MUTH: There is a very, very low percentage of those incidents or events that occur. But know this - that it's one team. And if any of that occurs, it is immediately addressed by the chain of command because, one, we want to create a safe and secure environment and dignity and respect for everybody in the United States Army. So that is pervasive throughout the commands.
FADEL: The other thing is, you know, the military's been mired in wars for a lot of this generation's lives - right? - Iraq, Afghanistan, the longest-running war. Is it a difficult sell because - if there is real danger for young people that will be going out there to possibly die for their country?
MUTH: You're right. That's out there. It's a very small percentage that are, one, participating and, two, that participate in direct combat operations alone.
MUTH: There is risk in anything. But it's a low risk in terms of being part of the direct combat fight.
FADEL: So what's the number you need to reach this year?
MUTH: We're still working on that. It won't be 76,500, which was our mission last year. I think it's going to be a lower number.
FADEL: Gen. Frank Muth of the Army Recruiting Command, thank you so much.
MUTH: It has been my honor and pleasure. And thank you for the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.