Military Generation Z recruiting woes worsened by TikTok ban and Big Tech competition

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Lackland Air Force Base, Joint Base San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, USA – September 10, 2015: Honor Flight Pfingston marching in formation into the coin ceremony at the end of Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, surrounded by other honor flights. RonBailey/Getty Images

Military Generation Z recruiting woes worsened by TikTok ban and Big Tech competition

The U.S. military is seeking to attract the youngest generation to enlist, but technology troubles have hampered the Department of Defense’s ability to recruit effectively.

A ban on TikTok from government and military devices has limited the department’s utilization of the growing platform popularized by Generation Z, with an estimated 64 million users between the ages of 16-34 in the United States. And lagging pay in the military can’t keep pace with the prospect of technology sector opportunities that younger Americans seek out.

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Experts and recruiters note that Gen Z, people born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, are much different from previous generations, including their lack of familiarity with the military, growing up in the social media era, and distinct life goals.

“Members of Gen Z are authenticity seekers,” Lt. Cmdr. Richard Parker from Navy Recruiting Command told the Washington Examiner. “They crave authentic travel and adventure. Many of our recruiting efforts focus on connecting with potential future sailors through memorable experiences, telling stories of the Navy adventure and pride in service. We also face the challenge of top talent in a strong economy.”

“We are competing not only against other services that offer unique opportunities but also with the private sector,” he added. “In addressing this challenge we offer strong incentives such as enlistment bonuses, free healthcare, support for college education and specialized training in more than 150 career fields that will help them be competitive in the job market after their Navy service.”

A senior congressional aide familiar with the first draft of the National Defense Authorization Act, released last week by the House Armed Services Committee, noted that the Department of Defense is competing with the likes of Google, Meta, and Netflix for tech jobs and the department needs to incentivize applicants to choose the military.

“A lot of jobs going forward in the private sector are going to pay a lot more money than we can pay at the federal level and especially at the Department of Defense,” the aide said. “So how do we find opportunities to increase pay? How do we find opportunities to make life better for service members, so it looks like a career, not something you sign up for, for four to six years, but a career. Kids are going to get out of high school and college these days with a lot of technical skills in terms of computer aptitude. So how do we compete when someone’s got the opportunity to work a desk job and one of these new companies versus a life in the services?”

The staffer admitted the NDAA won’t completely solve the issues, but added, “What we’re trying to do is holistically improve the quality of life for members when they sign up and when they serve for both themselves and their families.”

From a financial standpoint, the military is also competing with organizations and companies that will likely offer employees more money and less physically demanding work, which is why Congress is looking to boost pay by 5.2% in the defense funding bill.

The lowest-ranking service members make about $22,000 but Congress is looking to increase that to $31,000, which would be roughly equivalent to $15 per hour, per Military Times.

Dr. Mike Haynie, a veteran who founded the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans & Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, noted that the efforts to ban TikTok, the popular social media platform with ties to the Chinese government, hurt the military’s ability to connect with the very demographic they’re trying to recruit.

“The reality is, if you think beyond the security implications, and I’m not informed enough to know what those are or not, but, the reality is saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get off this platform,’ means you’ve just lost a compelling channel to market to and to communicate with this current generation,” he told the Washington Examiner.

The competition for these young adults is not the only contributing factor to the woeful recruiting situation.

Gen Z, as a whole, has less familiarity with the military, fewer meet the health and fitness requirements of the military, and there’s a seemingly different sense of patriotism. Service branches, as a result, have relaxed certain appearance standards, giving applicants who fail a drug test or fail to qualify on the aptitude test extra opportunities to correct it, and increasing bonuses, among other changes to incentivize enlistment.

“This is a very unique generation,” Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, told Military.com in March. “Generation Z is not patriotic, in the traditional sense; they’re also less trusting of government. … However, Generation Z, these young Americans, still want to have a purpose, they want to be able to make a difference, they want to do something that they feel is really important and meaningful. But we have to become part of that relevant conversation.”

A Pentagon study from last year revealed that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, drug use, or having mental and physical health problems. The 23% of young adults who would be eligible is a decrease from 29% in recent years, according to DOD data.

“The environment for recruiting members of the Gen Z cohort is very challenging,” Parker said. “There are misperceptions about military service which are impacted by decreasing prior military service from family members and other influencers such as teachers or coaches. There are also challenges within the cohort related to health issues, inability to meet physical fitness standards, not meeting minimum educational standards, or having a criminal record.”

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Army leaders acknowledged on Tuesday that they would fall short of their recruiting goal for the fiscal year, though they have more recruits so far this year than they did last year at this time. Last year, the Army fell short of its recruiting goal by roughly 15,000 troops.

A spokeswoman for the Air Force confirmed to the Washington Examiner this month that they don’t expect to hit their goal for this fiscal year either, while a Navy spokesman said they won’t know until the end of the year.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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