Early in my career, I had the opportunity to serve as a White House Fellow. The White House Fellowship program provides young leaders an opportunity to gain first-hand experience at the highest levels of federal government. The White House Fellows often return to their previous professions with a much better appreciation for government service. White House Fellows work closely with Cabinet members, senior White House Staff, or other top-ranking government officials. I had the honor and opportunity to work directly for Secretary Edward J. Derwinski, the first Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary. Upon entering the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters, I saw a plaque near the entrance inscribed with words taken from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which he delivered on March 4, 1865. The plaque’s inscription:
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
As we reflect on Veterans Day, it is important to acknowledge that freedom is not free and comes at a cost. Those who have “borne the battle” have sacrificed much, some with their lives, and some with great physical and emotional pain, so that many others can live in freedom. Their families also serve and sacrifice. Today we cannot assume enough young men and women will volunteer to serve in our military. And without a strong military, businesses will not succeed. So, business leaders have a role in ensuring our nation remains strong through a strong military.
Currently, most of our military services are not able to accomplish their recruiting missions. The Army is the largest military service and has failed to achieve its recruiting mission by 15,000 and 10,000 recruits in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The U.S. Army has ten divisions, the core of the fighting force. A U.S. Army Division has approximately 15,000 soldiers, so the current shortage of recruits is significant. Considering the recruit deficit in the Air Force (2,700) and the Navy (6,000), the total active-duty shortfall is approximately 18,700. The challenge is even greater when considering the shortfall in our military’s Reserve and National Guard components. How would a private sector business perform with this level of personnel shortages?
There are no simple answers to our military recruiting challenges. The pool of eligible and interested candidates is decreasing for various reasons. There are health, fitness, education, and conduct issues, the civilian market remains competitive, and there is less familiarity with military service. If not enough young men and women are willing to serve their country in uniform, our country should consider its options. While America’s military forces face challenges in recruiting, in contrast, virtually every able-bodied person in Ukraine and Israel is serving their country to protect their freedom.
The United States transitioned from conscription to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. In the past fifty years of the AVF, our military has benefitted from a professional force of individuals who have chosen to serve. Although recruiting is challenging, our military is doing well with retention. A conscripted force would impact the cost and efficiencies gained through the AVF since retention rates would suffer. So, the AVF is good for our military and for our country. However, our nation should consider the importance of national service, whether in the military, public education, government, police force, firefighters, or many other areas where young men and women could serve their country.
Many of the difficult challenges our nation faces will be solved through public-private partnerships. Having people skilled in the public arena and then serving in the private sector will help businesses better understand how to work successfully on complex matters that can only be solved when our public and private sectors work together.
For example, consider AmeriCorps, a network of local, state, and national service programs. AmeriCorps is a federal agency that brings people together to address critical challenges through national service and volunteering. AmeriCorps volunteers, ages 18-26, serve to meet community needs in education, the environment, public safety, health, and homeland security.
AmeriCorps volunteers are not paid a salary, but they receive a monthly stipend to cover living expenses. These volunteers serve a purpose greater than themselves. As the country considers national service, part of the incentive could be the repayment of college loans. Businesses can incentivize national service by hiring young people who have developed many skills through volunteer efforts.
Incentivizing national service could help young people to consider service in our military, public education, and many other professions in the public sector. Those young people in the public sector learn many skills that will serve the private sector well. They learn about leadership, problem-solving, budgeting, finance, stakeholder engagement, communication skills, adaptability, and resilience. Public sector employees serve a purpose greater than themselves. This important value helps these employees to be mission-oriented in their approach. Public sector employees look to create value over the longer term. They optimize the resources available and work well with diverse teams. They also understand how to succeed in working with local, state, and federal governments. Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s effort to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, is an excellent example of a public-private partnership where the private and the public sector came together to make a significant difference. Those in the private sector with public sector experience are invaluable in these public-private partnerships.
Our All-Volunteer Force must succeed. To do so, it will require each young American to be open to the idea of public service. Today less than 1% of Americans serve in the military. Those who choose to serve in our military will become the next generation of veterans. Families of those who serve also sacrifice much. So, on this Veterans Day, we also honor our veterans’ family members.
Businesses that accept veterans into their ranks will benefit from their strong sense of duty, commitment, and loyalty to their leaders and company missions, which are fundamental to business success.