A Consultant's Casebook

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Was there a Drop in Propensity to Enlist?

Toward the end of 1990, recruiting volunteers to join the Army was a relatively easy task.  The annual mission (in terms of numbers of recruits) was easily accomplished, and with a smaller Army projected, there was every indication that recruiting would remain manageable. 

 Unpredictably, during 1991, Army recruiters found it difficult to fill open positions and keep the Army at full strength.  The Navy and Air Force also reported difficulties attracting qualified men and women.  With hindsight, a number of factors were identified that might have contributed to recruiting difficulties.  These changes included:

·         the war against Saddam Hussein In the Persian Gulf,

·         a reduction in advertising funds,

·         the publicity associated with downsizing the Army,

·         the national Youth Attitude Tracking Study suggested a decrease in the propensity of young people to enlist in the military, and

·         paradoxically, an increased mission – necessary to field full-strength units for operation Desert Storm.

Major General Jack Wheeler, commander of the Army Recruiting Command, recognized the recruiting difficulties and attributed the difficulties to leadership.  He replaced over 1/3 of the leadership team under his command; assuming that the younger and more invigorated leadership could more effectively manage the recruiting mission.  And, by October and November of 1992, Army recruiting appeared well in-hand.

Still, General Wheeler believed that the recruiting difficulties observed in mid-to-late 1991 were real.  He believed that young people had hardened their attitudes toward the military and that recruiting was more difficult since he took command.  He approved a research contract to identify the cause(s) for the decline in propensity to enlist (DIPTEST).  And, he expected us to offer suggestions on how the observed decline in propensity could be countered.

We began by identifying possible underlying causal factors for the observed decline in propensity to enlist:

•     perceptions of the Army as an unreliable employer,

•     a reduction in advertising, and

•     the Desert Storm campaign in the Persian Gulf.  

The first two hypotheses are related.  The Pentagon budget was being reduced, and the effects were felt in all of the services, especially the Army.  During the late 1990s, the press devoted many articles to the downsizing of the Army.  Almost immediately after the budget cuts, the downsizing was felt in Army families around the country as re-enlistment prospects for mid-career officers and non-commissioned officers were dampened.  Their sons and daughters were among the first to feel that military employment was uncertain.  And, since the advertising budget for the Army was also reduced, fewer young people considered a military career.

The Desert Storm campaign was assumed to have a major effect.  The US had participated in no major military operations since Vietnam, and military service was, in fact, far less risky than forestry work, or mining, or many other physical, out-of-doors activities.  But, the Persian Gulf campaign faced young men and women with the fact that military service might involve physical risks.

There was one further possibility that I wanted to consider – that there was no downturn in propensity to enlist!  The observed downturn in propensity could have been an artifact of survey methodology or mis-analysis.

The Army commissions a Youth Attitude Tracking Survey (YATS) each year.  The Defense Manpower Data Center lets contracts for the research and maintains the data.  I ordered complete sets of data for the preceeding years, 1990, 1991, and 1992.  It was immediately apparent from a review of the summary reports that the Defense Manpower Data Center had changed contractors between 1990 and 1991.  Recall that 1991 was the year in which young people appeared to be less inclined to enlist in the military. 

A further review of the summary reports suggested that the new contractor had begun using a very different sample.  Prior to 1991, the YATS was administered to a nation-wide random sample of young males in high school and not enrolled in college.  Beginning in 1991, the sample included young males enrolled in college.  Suddenly including a group of young men for whom military service was not a serious option resulted in more negative attitudes toward the military – the perceived drop in propensity to enlist. 

Incredibly, we discovered the answer to the problem with far less expended time and effort than allotted.    I reported our findings to General Wheeler:  (1) there was no drop in propensity to enlist, and (2) that recruiting probably hadn’t gotten harder.  While advertising expenditures had dropped, publicity about Army downsizing was widespread, and the Gulf War increased the risk associated with the military service, these factors appeared to not significantly affect the young people for whom military service was an option.


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Last modified: October 19, 2000