The Associated Press has learned that the US military is, for the first time, offering a $50,000 maximum enlistment bonus to highly skilled recruits who struggle to lure soldiers into some critical jobs amid the continuing pandemic.
Major General Kevin Wren, the head of the Army Recruiting Command, told the AP that closed schools and a competitive job market over the past year have presented significant challenges for recruiters. So, in the toughest months of the year for recruits, the Army is hoping that some extra cash and some other changes will attract eligible youth to sign up.
“We are still living the implications of 2020 and the start of COVID, when school systems basically shut down,” Viren said. “We lost an entire section of young men and women we didn’t have face-to-face contact with.”
The two-year pandemic has made it more difficult to enroll in schools and public programs, and competition for quality workers intensifies as young people weigh their options.
Some, Viren said, are taking what he calls a gap year, and “deciding they don’t need to work right now.”
The annual enlistment target fluctuates as soldiers currently serving decide whether to reenlist or leave. Over the past two years, as the pandemic raged, many decided to stay put, easing pressure on recruitment. Last year’s recruitment target was 57,500 and Wren said it would be roughly the same this year as well.
difficult to qualify
To entice recruits, who sign up for six years of recruiting in one of several high-demand career fields, they can receive bonuses that can total as much as $50,000. Given the high standards, it would be difficult for many to qualify for the top bonus.
The final figure depends on when they agree to go out for training, if they already have significant skills and if they choose airborne or ranger positions. Certain careers – such as missile defense teams, special forces, signals intelligence and fire control specialists who coordinate battlefield weapons operations – can often come with maximum bonuses. But other major jobs include Infantry, Intelligence Analyst, Combat Medicine Specialist, Military Police, Combat Engineer and many more. And they can change every month, depending on available locations in the training pipeline and other service needs.
So far, the military has offered a maximum bonus of $40,000.
“We are in a competitive market,” Viren said. “How we encourage is absolutely essential, and it’s absolutely something we know is important for someone trying to get into the military and join the military.”
Sergeant First Class Mary James has been working as a recruiter in Ohio since November 2020, and she said the early months – when COVID-19 was on the rise and there were no vaccines – were challenging. It got better, and he said that the higher bonus would help him.
“Money isn’t always the first thing they talk about, but it comes into play,” said James, who has been in the military for 15 years. “It’ll be exciting to see what the return on that is. You know, I think it puts us in one of the top tier tiers of competing businesses.”
James, who previously worked as a signals intelligence analyst, can also talk to recruits about deployment in war zones, and the exciting opportunities the military offers. And she said she hears a lot of questions and concerns about sustainability, leaving home and a career that could take them from place to place every few years.
Wren said the military was doing more to address such concerns. Last fall the Army significantly increased the two-year enlistment option, expanding it to a total of 84 different career fields. And some will be able to choose where they will be assigned initially – an advantage Army leaders have approved in an effort to be more family-friendly and strengthen the recruitment effort, especially in the pandemic.
less money available
According to Viren, the total amount of bonuses available has not been determined. But funding has dwindled every year since its peak of more than $485 million in 2018, after the military failed to meet its annual enlistment target. In the fiscal year ending September 30, the military spent more than $233 million on bonuses, with approximately 16,500 recruits receiving an average enlistment bonus of more than $14,000.
“We want to promote the value of serving your country first,” Viren said. “But we also know that, this generation and I think human nature, you know, is also all about compensation.”
For James, the money can help him meet his recruiting goal because the military uses what’s called a “bathtub” in the months of February through May, when recruiting is historically at its low point. During the spring, more than 9,400 Army recruits seek and sign up people who have already graduated from high school and college. Recruiting traditionally spikes as students graduate in the spring and begin looking for jobs.
James said he aims to get 20 qualified candidates a week to take the initial recruitment step, and last week he got 75% of that. She had more success around the holidays, but now it’s more difficult.
Complicating the issue is the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is prompting some school systems to shut down – like recruiters wanting to go to schools or sporting events to lure candidates in.
As a result, Brigadier General John Cushing, the deputy commander of the Recruiting Command, said the Army had decided to change its bonus system. In previous years, Cushing said, the military spread bonuses, “like peanut butter evenly across accessions. [recruiting] year.” This year, the money will be concentrated over the next few months when it is really needed.
“It’s definitely a weapon that we have in our arsenal. And I think we’ve used it effectively and I’m pretty confident we’ll have it again this year,” Cushing said.