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It would be hard to have missed last year's steady drumbeat of reports describing the difficulty experienced by military recruiters in filling quotas for new recruits, primarily for the "ground services." Reports released by the Army's Public Affairs Office showed persistent (and growing) recruiting deficits throughout much of 2005, culminating in a 7,000+ shortage of new US Army recruits for the '05 recruiting year.

In a May 13, 2005 USA Today article, ("Army Offers 1 1/4 year Hitch"), Maj. Gen. Michael Rochelle, (now former) head of the Army's Recruiting Command suggested that, despite the addition of hundreds of new recruiters, a plethora of new enlistment deals, and substantial signing bonuses, the problem may not be short lived, owing to "the toughest recruiting climate ever faced by the all-volunteer Army."

Many have suggested that the problem stems from an enhanced "danger factor" over the past four years, during which both active and reserve troops have been steadily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though there is likely some truth to that, we don't believe it's the sole cause - not by a long shot.

For as long as there have been armies, soldiers and their families have understood that they are engaged in difficult, dangerous duty. The pay is low, separations can be long, conditions are harsh, and the soldier may not come back in one piece, or at all.

Whether in civilian life or the military, an organization's ability to recruit is driven in large part by its reputation. Organizations that become known for indifferent or unfriendly employment practices find it difficult (and more expensive) to attract and retain talented people. To a great degree, the same things that impinge on private industry also impact the military. There are a host of factors that contribute to one's reputation as a place to work, including the following:

Clear sense of purpose & mission
People want to be involved in work that is meaningful to them. In order to really engage with the organization, they require a clear and compelling sense of purpose and direction. Translation - they want to read mysteries, not live them. Evidence suggests that many - clearly not all - but many patriotic, pro-military soldiers are unclear about the mission in Iraq. If that's true, they can't possibly be as engaged as if they were certain of their reason for being there.

Interestingly, recent reports indicate that while attracting new recruits remains the challenge it was a year ago, the Army is ahead of its re-enlistment goals for the year. In describing the possible reason behind the re-enlistment success, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman, said in an April 9, 2006 USA Today article, "Our people want to be part of something greater than themselves, and they're willing to put up with a lot." He could have been talking about your people, too.

Could it be that the mission has been clearly articulated for some already on duty, but not for the masses on the outside, the source of new recruits?

Civilian employers are subject to the same phenomenon. Most, it seems cannot get beyond the wordsmithing associated with assembling a Mission Statement, to the far more important task of ensuring that all hands on deck have a clear sense of why the organization exists and where it's headed. Consequently, our people are forced to operate amidst a fog of banners, buzzwords, and catch phrases... 'mission flatulence' if you will. We would do well to burn off that fog and make sure (really sure) that our folks have an ultra clear sense of purpose and direction.

Enabled to Perform
Like the rest of us, soldiers want a better than even chance of succeeding. Consistent with that aim, they want the tools, resources, and the chance to do their best work. Justified or not, Operation Iraqi Freedom has experienced enough well publicized complaints about the lack of armor, food, manpower, and equipment to erode confidence, and in turn, the military's reputation as an employer. (Gen. Bernard Trainor's recent book, Cobra II provides compelling documentation.) When private citizens feel obligated to hold bake sales to raise funds to purchase personal body armor and food for the troops, something is clearly wrong in the planning and provisioning process.

One area where the military excels is in training. It has been said that armies do two things: They prepare (train), and they fight. Lest there be any doubt, they are serious as a heart attack about that training, too. It is neither optional nor easy. Those of us in private industry or civilian public organizations would do well to study the example of the military here. At a minimum, we would come away with pointers about using your best and brightest, coupled with 'graybeards' to do the training; the benefits of 'live fire exercises', the effect of competence on confidence, and the need to maintain the training effort in good times and bad, to name but a few.

Deal Breaker
After the Vietnam War, when the military faced recruiting difficulties, Congress enacted legislation giving the Department of Defense the option of involuntarily extending a soldier's commitment period. Though this "stop loss" authority was granted, the Pentagon didn't use it until 1990, in the build-up for the first Gulf War. Since then, in the face of a shrinking military footprint and increased deployment, stop loss authority has been routinely used to extend the tours of active troops in all branches, as well as those in the Reserve and National Guard. It's legal, but there's a price. Soldiers in the "all volunteer army" who had been taught since grade school that "a deal is a deal" suddenly learned otherwise.

Not unlike the current travails at United Airlines and the broken promises to employees and retirees over pensions, invoking 'King's X' authority for anything less than matters of clear and vital interest leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and a reputation sullied. When those considering being recruited (who, after all, don't have to join in the first place) learn that their four year commitment is, in fact, more open-ended than that, many are simply exercising their options to be civilians before the choice is snatched away from them. If we as corporate employers want to keep our reputations intact, we must do what it takes to ensure that our word is good. No one wants to go to work for a known deal breaker.

When the above-mentioned stop loss isn't invoked, soldiers normally have the opportunity to either exit the military or 're-up' every few years at the conclusion of their enlistment period. One important factor that is apparently helping the military reduce the demand for new soldiers, and taking some pressure off the recruiting effort, is increased emphasis on retaining the ones they've already got. In the weeks and months preceding the reenlistment period, the soldier is usually visited one or more times by their reporting senior for purposes of 're-recruiting' them to the military.

Their civilian counterparts, on the other hand, generally have an opportunity to quit or 're-up' at the end of each shift (sooner if you work in retail or fast food.) Wise leaders realize the fragile nature of the relationship and make it a point to continue the courtship long after the person has joined their organization. They meet frequently with their people, take an interest in them, and wonder in the back of their mind what their people are thinking and feeling when they go home each day.

Having watched a young, worried, pregnant military wife lie sleepless on the couch for four days waiting to hear from or about her husband when his unit had been hit by a suicide bomber, and then later deliver her baby without so much as a call, note, or email from anybody in the Department of Defense, one of us quickly realized that an important path to re-recruitment goes thru the employee's family. Here again, wise leaders take care to maintain appropriate sensitivity to, and dialogue with their teammates' family members. (post a link to previous FM re-recruiting article)

With a talent pool that appears poised to continue tightening, we would all do well to work at preserving (and enhancing) our reputation as a place to work. Those that do will compete handily for the hearts and minds of the workforce; those that choose not to may have to invent some stop loss measures of their own.

Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette
Contented Cow Partners, LLC

phone: 904-720-0870
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