Raising Pay Can’t Fix Military Recruiting, But It Would Help, Experts Say

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • While the military gets a pay raise each year in line with the growth in civilian wages, some say it’s not enough to attract the number of high-quality troops the military is hoping to recruit.
  • Raising pay could ease the impacts of other inhibitors to recruiting and retention, like poor quality of life and leadership.
  • “When you realize though, that what they’re making right now is the equivalent of $11 per hour starting salary… that really magnifies the problem,” Republican California Rep. Mike Garcia told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Raising pay is one tool Congress should use as the military is struggling to fill the ranks with recruits who meet service standards, but it would not totally solve the problem, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Service members say they are struggling to buy groceries for their families and stretching their housing allowances while an abundance of domestic jobs — which don’t require employees to deal with the unique stresses and disciplines of service — pull people away from service. Low pay could factor in to the military’s recruiting crisis, according to some lawmakers, although the Pentagon disagrees.

Military pay varies by one’s rank and years of service and whether one is an enlisted servicemember or an officer.

An enlisted member of the Army will make $23,822.40 in their first year plus an additional $425.56 monthly food allowance, according to the 2023 pay scales published by the Department of Defense (DOD). Enlisted service members in the Army earn $1,773 per month for their first four months of service at the lowest rank of E-1. After four months, the pay of those ranking E-1 is increased to $1917.60 per month. Soldiers in the Army will be automatically promoted to an E-2 after six months of service, according to guidance, and then make $2,149.20 per month.

An officer, by contrast, will start out with an annual salary of $43,646 and a slightly smaller food allowance than those received by enlisted troops.

Republican California Rep. Mike Garcia, a former Navy aviator who sponsored legislation making it easier for military spouses to find consistent employment, told the DCNF that new recruits to the military are now making “the equivalent of $11 per hour starting salary.”

Congress raises military pay each year by law, but the increases in recent years haven’t kept pace with opportunity costs and inflation, which could exacerbate elements contributing to the recruiting crisis, advocates and experts told the DCNF.

Rep. Garcia said pay is one leg in a “three legged stool” of factors that compel people to join the military. Quality of life and trust in leadership are also crucial, he said.

“People will still join the military if one of those legs is not there — they will still take the leap of faith, whether it’s because they’re patriots, they love their country, and they just want to serve,” he told the DCNF. “But when all three of those things are at the weakest levels they’ve been historically, then we’ve set ourselves up for this nightmare right now that we have on the recruitment and retention side.” (RELATED: Few Provisions Blocking Left-Wing Social Policies Squeak Through Senate’s Defense Bill) 

“The total Regular Military Compensation (annualized) for a member in pay grade E-1 with no dependents and fewer than 4 months of experience is the sum of basic pay ($21,276) plus [Basic Allowance for Housing] ($17,454.60) plus [Basic Allowance for Subsistence] ($5,430.72) plus the federal tax advantage ($3,039.50), which totals $47,200.82,” Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told the DCNF.

As the military struggles with what service leaders have called the worst recruiting crisis in the history of the all-volunteer force, each branch has turned to financial incentives as a partial solution to the problem.

Since 2022, the services have rolled out additional bonuses ranging up to the tens of thousands of dollars for new recruits who will ship out quickly or those who can fill high-skilled and technical occupations.

Both upping pay and giving out targeted bonuses can increase recruit quality, backing up the Pentagon’s strategy to shell out millions in bonuses and special pays, according to a RAND analysis.

“It is a blunt and costly instrument for addressing recruiting challenges,” the analysis’ authors wrote in 2019, referring to compensation. Other periods when military pay lagged behind the growth in private sector wages did not correspond with poor recruiting, while bonuses can offset the “opportunity costs” for high-quality younger recruits with good job prospects elsewhere.

Garcia disagreed.

“I would prefer that we increase the floor in terms of benefits and compensation, spend about the same amount of money in doing so and then we use the incentive packages for individuals that have shown a lot of opportunity and potential for the military,” he told the DCNF.

In a more challenging recruiting environment, higher pay may be justified to ensure consistent recruit quality and retention “when other resources are found to be insufficient,” researchers concluded in a 2020 RAND analysis. Given that some contributors to current recruiting problems are more enduring than a favorable job market, a higher pay threshold could be considered.

In addition, “changes in defense threats, readiness requirements, and military technology have shifted manpower requirements” toward more intelligent recruits in some services, such as the Navy and the Air Force.

About half of Army recruits said pay or the opportunity to gain career experience and work skills factored into their decisions to join, according to an Army poll cited by RAND that is unavailable to the general public.

“We must offer a compensation package that matches the potential of the select few who are able and willing to serve,” the Military Officers Association of America wrote to the House Armed Services Committee’s newly-established Quality of Life Panel in July.

“While many avenues should be explored by the committee to improve the quality of life for our troops and their families, few are as quick and effective as increasing compensation,” the group said in its written statement, which was obtained by the DCNF.

Entrances in every service branch, except the Marine Corps, are on track to fall short in 2023 after missing or barely reaching objectives for 2022. The Army suffered worst of all that year, falling 25% short of a goal that it easily met in previous years.

As of July, the last month for which data is available, the Marine Corps was the only service to have met active duty or reserve recruiting goals, while the Space Force had nearly achieved its comparatively small 500-troop objective. With just two months remaining in the fiscal year, the Army had chalked up 77% of what the Army secretary described as a “stretch goal” in active duty accessions, the Navy 76% and the Air Force 86%.

A Pentagon spokesperson attributed recruiting problems to factors including a competitive private sector job market, lingering effects of COVID-19, a general lack of familiarity with the armed services and historically low percentage of young people who meet the basic standards of entry.

Only about 23% of young Americans meet the requirements to serve without a waiver, according to the latest DOD figures. Drug use, obesity and mental or physical health problems increasingly disqualify of-age Americans.

In addition, only 9% of people ages 16 to 21 express interest in joining the military, a historically low number, DOD research has found.

The most recent DOD analysis found that, on average, enlisted members were paid at about the 85th percentile compared to peers in the private sector and officers were paid near the 77th percentile.

“The proof of the adequacy of the military compensation is ultimately revealed in DOD’s ability to recruit and retain the military force we need to defend the nation,” Jade Fulce, a spokesperson for DOD’s office for personnel and readiness, told the DCNF.

“Moreover, overall retention among the military services remains at historically high levels, at or near 100% of retention goals. This again suggests that military compensation remains more than adequate,” Fulce said.

FORT MEADE, MARYLAND - JULY 05: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin takes photos with military recruits after an oath of enlistment ceremony at Fort George G. Meade on July 05, 2023 in Fort Meade, Maryland. Austin attended the ceremony to administer the oath marking 50 years of the U.S. military being an all-volunteer service.

FORT MEADE, MARYLAND – JULY 05: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin takes photos with military recruits after an oath of enlistment ceremony at Fort George G. Meade on July 05, 2023 in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Financial insecurity, however, has become an increasingly salient concern for service members, especially those with families, research has found.

A congressionally-mandated survey found that 25.8% of active duty troops were food insecure, according to a RAND research brief.

The 2022 Military Family Lifestyle survey conducted by Blue Star Families found that 44% of active duty service members said that military pay was a top family issue.

By law, military basic pay is increased each year based on the Employment Cost Index, a measure tracking growth in private sector wages. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) enacted a 4.6% pay raise, the largest in 20 years, but lawmakers at the time noted that unexpected levels of inflation, up to 9% in the months between the administration’s proposal and the NDAA becoming law, netted service members a pay cut.

Total compensation for service members includes basic pay as well as allowances for subsistence and housing, special pays the Pentagon has discretion to allocate as rewards for taking on a more difficult or dangerous role, and selective bonuses. Military personnel and their families also have access to health benefits through TRICARE.

Congress and the Pentagon have moved to relieve some of the financial stressors service members are dealing with. In January, the Pentagon began paying out a new basic needs allowance to active duty troops whose gross household income falls below 150% of federal poverty guidelines, up from the previous 130% threshold.

The 2023 NDAA also raised the Basic Allowance for Housing by 12%, the Cost of Living Adjustment by 8.7% and the Basic Allowance for Subsistence by 11%.

Military leaders earlier acknowledged that some service members struggled to remain afloat as a result of high inflation in 2022; the Army released guidance on how to access DOD financial aid resources as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Service members stationed in Hawaii and Guam are facing massive cuts to their Cost of Living Allowances based on outdated surveys, Stars and Stripes reported.

Under President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for 2024, troops would get a 5.2% pay raise as inflation appears to be cooling.

One provision under debate for inclusion in 2024 National Defense Authorization Act would give junior enlisted troops up to a 31% pay raise. It sets the floor for basic pay at $31,000 annually and allocates $800 million to rework the existing pay tables.

Garcia rewrote the pay tables and told the DCNF he got positive feedback from the Department of Defense — but they weren’t sure how they would pay for it.

“Any time you’re willing to make the potential sacrifices that our troops make — potentially not just giving their lives, but getting hurt or being on deployments and being away from the family — there’s not enough that we can pay them. When you realize though, that what they’re making right now is the equivalent of $11 per hour starting salary… that really magnifies the problem,” Garcia told the DCNF.

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