Military recruiting traditionally relies on crowded events like career fairs and prolonged, face-to-face interactions. How has the military recruited, shipped, and trained when traditional methods are no longer deemed safe by public health experts? Methods have changed, but are these new approaches working?


Military recruiting has been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recruiters rely on personal, one-on-one conversations to gauge potential recruits' aspirations and discuss how those aspirations can fit into the mission of their branch of the armed services. To maximize the chances of meeting their monthly targets, recruiters often rely on high-traffic locations such as malls or organized events at schools that give them the opportunity to interact with the greatest number of potential recruits.

However, social distancing and limitations on large gatherings brought on by COVID-19 have shuttered high schools, left malls empty, and severely limited recruiters ability to make use of the time-tested approach of face-to-face conversations. In many locations across the country, local health ordinances have forced the closure of recruiting stations. The cancellation of sports and other community events limits recruiters' ability to rely on the coaches and other adults that often help facilitate recruiter meetings with high schoolers.

In response, recruiters have pivoted to more modern, digital approaches that typically were viewed as secondary to face-to-face efforts. In recent months, recruiters have almost exclusively relied on phone calls and social media for their outreach. Since recruits have not been able to visit physical recruiting offices, many recruits are even digitally signing their enlistment contracts. Only recently, with some of the areas of the country re-opening, have traditional recruiting methods returned — at least in part.

Despite these new recruiting efforts, the number of new contracts fell noticeably over April, May and June. Reports indicate that Army enlistments fell to about half of their typical levels during the early stages of the pandemic, though they have moved back up to about 80% of mission targets in June. Still, the armed services have expressed optimism in their ability to meet year-end recruiting goals. The Marine Corps noted that it was ahead of schedule on contracts prior to the pandemic and was able to adjust sufficiently to the new environment to be on track to achieve its annual recruiting mission. The Navy has tapped into a reserve of prior recruits waiting in the Delayed Entry Program to keep up with shipping requirements and expects to meet its year-end goals.

Shipping and Training

COVID-19 has also complicated shipping and training of new recruits. The pandemic presents a particular challenge at boot camp. In normal times, each training depot would welcome hundreds or thousands of new recruits every few weeks, while housing them in shared barracks and training them in groups well beyond the CDC recommended limit of 10 people. The services have had to change this model in consideration of the health and safety of both recruits and training staff.

While the particular responses have varied across the services, the result has been fewer trainees and longer processing times. The Marine Corps has reduced recruit training capacity to allow for social distancing and provides nearby lodging where new arrivals to boot camp quarantine for 14 days — a costly burden. Shipping to Recruit Depot, Parris Island halted completely, leaving thousands of new Marines to idle in the Delayed Entry Program. The Marine Corps has also suspended the standard 10-day "boot leave" period that follows graduation from boot camp.

The Navy suspended shipping in late March for three weeks, followed by another six weeks of limited shipping. As a result, many of the new recruits that expected to ship during the spring were delayed until the summer. Like the Marine Corps, the Navy has limited its boot camp capacity and implemented the same mandatory pre-training quarantine, slowing the progress of new sailors. Still, the reliance on the Delayed Entry Program for meeting shipping goals means that the backlog of recruits awaiting training has fallen to about 80% of traditional levels.

Going Forward

The ability of the services to weather the storm depends on a number of near-term unknowns:

  • How many contracts can be signed in the coming months?
  • How will the state of the economy evolve, and how will this impact recruiting and retention?
  • Will a second wave of coronavirus cases force new restrictions that would again limit recruiting and shipping?

Another significant question — How has COVID-19 affected recruit quality? — cannot be answered for at least a year, when the performance and retention rates of servicemembers recruited under COVID-19 can finally be measured. In the interim, the military’s recruiting commands will continue to push forward, optimistic that they can adapt to these new challenges.

Kyle Neering and Ray Wang are both Research Analysts in CNA’s Resources and Force Readiness division. Dr. Neering holds a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of California in Santa Cruz and Dr. Wang holds a Ph.D. in Economics from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.