Military Leaders Warn: Historic Shortfalls in Military Recruiting Pose Dangerous National Security Trend
New report calls for greater investments in early care and education, basic education funding, and childhood nutrition to support readiness of future generations
Retired generals and admirals with Mission: Readiness were joined by Brigadier General Laura McHugh, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Deputy Adjutant General – Army, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, including the Chairs of the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee Rep. Jared Solomon and Rep. Mark Gillen, to release a new report documenting the impact that a shrinking workforce paired with ongoing skills / eligibility gaps among youth is having on the military. The report, “We Need…All That They Can Be”, outlines how fierce competition for qualified individuals is leading to historic military recruiting shortfalls and labor shortages in most employment sectors and demands greater investment in our next generation.
The report details the latest data from the Department of Defense and the Pennsylvania National Guard showing what some have described as the “worst recruiting environment in the 50-year history of the all-volunteer military.” The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force all missed their active duty recruiting goals in FY 2023, with the three branches reporting a combined shortfall of more than 20,000 enlistees. The U.S. Coast Guard is short about 10 percent of its entire enlisted workforce and has adjusted its 2024 operations plan to remove 10 cutters from service and shutter 29 boat stations in response to this personnel shortage. The Pennsylvania Army National Guard also missed its 2023 recruiting goal by almost 25 percent and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard by more than 45 percent.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Dennis Benchoff noted that this “competition for the qualified” is further compounded by the high percentage of young people who cannot meet the military’s core eligibility requirements regarding adequate education, health and fitness, and a clean criminal record.
“According to the Department of Defense, 77 percent of our nation’s 17- 24-year-olds do not qualify for military service,” said Benchoff. “If we do not address this trend, we will risk not having a sufficient pool of talented recruits to serve in our military or in our civilian workforce in the future.” Benchoff warned that such a situation would “risk further economic growth and pose a threat to future national security.”
The Mission: Readiness report cites data showing that workforce supply and readiness concerns are echoed by the private sector. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are currently 340,000 job openings in Pennsylvania, with only 82 available workers for every 100 open jobs. Further, estimates show that educational and skill shortages could cost the commonwealth’s economy more than $66 billion in lost economic output by 2029.
Brigadier General Laura McHugh, who currently serves as Deputy Adjutant General – Army for the Pennsylvania National Guard, acknowledged the imperative of reversing these readiness gaps in young people. “People are our most important asset,” said McHugh. “We MUST find creative solutions to our challenges and create opportunities for our young people to succeed.“
The Mission: Readiness report calls for continued investment in high-quality early care and education programs, equitable and adequate K-12 funding for all PA schools, and childhood nutrition programs as “pipeline” investments in future workforce (and military) readiness.
Retired Army Brigadier General George Schwartz stressed the importance of cultivating both the hard (academic) and soft (social emotional) skills of every child. “Research is clear that the birth-to-age-5 time frame is the most rapid period of brain development,” said Schwartz. “Quality early care and education programs like pre-k ensure readiness by improving children’s cognitive ability, health and behavior making them more likely to succeed throughout life.”
Acknowledging the expansion of state funding over the past decade for high quality pre-k programs like Pre-K Counts and Head Start, Schwartz emphasized that this progress is still overwhelmed by unmet need as more than 87,000 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds still lack access.
Given that most children under the age of 5 have all available parents in the workforce, the report emphasizes the role of high-quality child care as also being critical for the development of young learners. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania families struggle to find and afford high-quality child care options for their children and the early learning sector is currently experiencing a historic labor shortage of its own due to low compensation. The report encourages state policymakers to look to the Department of Defense’s overhaul effort of the Military Child Care System as a road map on how to stabilize the sector by investing in the early learning workforce as well as ensure affordability and access for working families.
Retired Navy Rear Admiral Tom Wilson identified that for the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s students, public K-12 education is a critical step in the “workforce pipeline.” “Well-funded schools are able to offer more individualized and diverse academic offerings that make a huge difference in readiness outcomes. In fact, students attending our state’s wealthiest schools scored significantly higher on state assessments and saw graduation rates that were 20 percentage points higher compared to those attending our poorest schools,” said Wilson.
Wilson continued, “Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has huge disparities in per-pupil spending between wealthy and poor school districts. Our state’s overreliance on local property taxes to fund public education has drastically limited poorer communities’ ability to adequately fund their schools.”
Acknowledging that more than 80 percent of the commonwealth’s school districts lack adequate resources to ensure student success, Wilson called on the members of the Basic Education Funding Commission to rectify this problem to ensure that young people are college or career ready, including service to our nation if they so choose.
The Mission: Readiness report also identifies the role that obesity is playing as the leading medical disqualifier of military service. While addressing that the nation’s childhood obesity crisis requires a multifaceted solution, the report identifies ensuring access to fresh and nutritious food as a critical part of the solution. Participants noted the importance of universal school breakfasts and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in this effort.
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