New army enlistment bonuses reveal how COVID, mandates impact the military

(AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

If you happen to know any young citizens who are of a patriotic bent with a desire to serve, this might be a good time to point them toward their nearest US Army recruiting station. The Army has just announced that it is increasing its enlistment bonuses for qualified applicants in specific technical fields to as much as $50,000. That’s not a bad chunk of change for somebody who has recently completed high school. The bad news is that the Army isn’t just acting out of charitable generosity. They’re having trouble hitting their enlistment quotas, particularly in some highly-skilled, technical fields. And there are a variety of reasons for this, as we’ll see in a moment. (Associated Press)

The U.S. Army, for the first time, is offering a maximum enlistment bonus of $50,000 to highly skilled recruits who join for six years, The Associated Press has learned, as the service struggles to lure soldiers into certain critical jobs during the continuing pandemic.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, head of Army Recruiting Command, told AP that shuttered schools and the competitive job market over the past year have posed significant challenges for recruiters. So heading into the most difficult months of the year for recruiting, the Army is hoping that some extra cash and a few other changes will entice qualified young people to sign up.

The first thing to know before you scurry off to the recruiter’s office is that the maximum bonus is only paid if you commit to six years of service rather than the usual four. (Two in some cases.) Also, you will need to do well on the entry exams in technical areas for most cases. The maximum bonuses won’t be paid to people heading for the infantry. They will apply to those who qualify to train for jobs in fields including missile defense, special forces, signals intelligence, and fire control specialists.

But what is causing the lack of new recruits? They cite a few different factors, most of them anecdotal and hard to quantify. COVID was obviously one of the big issues, though in a few different ways. With the schools having been closed for much of last year, recruiters lost access to school campuses where they can typically talk to students directly and build relationships. Vaccination issues are taking a toll as well. The military is already shedding people who refuse to get vaccinated and are unable to get an exemption. But you also have to be fully vaccinated to qualify and enlist, so the vaccine-hesitant won’t be able to sign up even if they want to.

The job market is another factor. Following “the great resignation,” a shortage of labor in many sectors has been driving wages and benefits upward. Sadly, the military is often seen as a last option for those who graduate high school and can’t find another job during times of higher unemployment. But right now there are plenty of jobs available, many paying more than they used to. That’s probably keeping even more recent graduates on the sideline.

I have to say that the pay and benefits being offered to American servicemen these days are impressive, even when you take annual inflation and other factors into consideration. When I finished boot camp back in the day, I was making barely over $5,000 per year. They were offering reenlistment bonuses for people in some technical fields at the end of your first tour, but they never rose into five figures. And nobody was offered a bonus just to enlist initially.

Hopefully, these new strategies will fill the ranks back to the levels that are required. If the army gets too desperate, they may have to start taking people whose only other alternative was jail.