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Lauren MaloneKevin NgJeff Tobin (Florida International University)
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Executive Summary

In recent years, the US government and Department of Defense (DOD) have increased their focus on the composition of the US military force, with numerous initiatives, strategies, and policy documents aiming to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Various government entities, including Congress, are particularly concerned with underrepresentation of Hispanic servicemembers in the officer and enlisted senior ranks across all Services. To improve representation and access for the growing Hispanic segment of American society, several federal government regulations as well as DOD and Service policies have attempted to address these gaps. However, barriers to Hispanic recruitment, retention, and promotion remain. In addition, the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act called for a study of Hispanic representation in the Armed Forces. To fulfill this requirement, DOD’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion asked CNA to conduct an analysis of Hispanic representation relative to the civilian population and a comparison of how each Service recruits, retains, and promotes Hispanic servicemembers.

The overall study effort will combine quantitative and qualitative approaches to understanding these issues, with a specific focus on identifying barriers to Hispanic recruitment, promotion, and retention and providing recommendations to build and sustain a more ethnically diverse force. This report lays the foundation for future analytic tasks by reviewing existing military and civilian literature that examines ethnic diversity in the military and civilian workforces, any programs and diversity initiatives implemented to improve Hispanic representation, and any program evaluations that identify strategies that do (or do not) work well. In conducting this literature review, we have identified insights from previous research that should be accounted for in the forthcoming phases of our analysis and gaps in the literature that future analysis should aim to address.

The literature shows that Hispanic people remain underrepresented in both the military (active and reserve components) and the civilian labor market. In the military, Hispanic servicemembers are underrepresented in the higher enlisted and officer paygrades, which mirrors trends in the private sector, in which Hispanic workers are disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions and professional occupations. In both sectors— military and civilian—there are cultural challenges in Hispanic recruitment (e.g., language, citizenship), although these are amplified in the military. In particular, parental support and approval are paramount in the Hispanic community, and in some cases, recruiters face challenges in communicating with prospective recruits’ family members. If a recruiter is unable to communicate with parents in their first language and mitigate concerns about military service, language can serve as an impediment to recruiting some Hispanic people. Hispanic people also are less likely to qualify for military service than their non-Hispanic counterparts because of lower test scores, lower high school graduation rates, and higher rates of obesity. In addition, citizenship can be a disqualifying factor in joining some military occupations (e.g., Marine Corps intelligence).

Our synthesis of the literature also revealed challenges in increasing Hispanic retention and promotion. Previous studies have identified potential biases in evaluation processes and lower representation of Hispanic people in jobs with higher promotion potential. Surveys of the civilian workforce reveal that Hispanic retention is higher when Hispanic employees experience a greater sense of belonging in the workplace, which is influenced by their ability to easily communicate and socialize with their peers and by the overall demographic diversity in their workforce (i.e., when they are not outliers in an otherwise homogenous group).

These studies’ primary recommendations for addressing barriers to increased ethnic diversity include the following:

  • Address parental language barriers and potential misunderstandings by assigning bilingual recruiters to areas with large Hispanic populations and training them on how to temper misunderstandings about the military
  • Participate in Hispanic affinity group events and make philanthropic contributions to grow the Hispanic community’s perception of DOD as a trusted party invested in them
  • Provide test preparatory materials; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics internships; and mentorship programs to improve Hispanic qualification for military service
  • Advertise military service as a potential path to citizenship
  • Provide unconscious bias training and remove references to race and ethnicity from promotion board materials (i.e., photographs and demographic data)
  • Implement promotion standards that ensure that servicemembers in different occupations have equal opportunities to promote, taking into account that not all occupations afford servicemembers the same experiences and growth opportunities
  • Make efforts to improve Hispanic servicemembers’ sense of belonging, perhaps by pairing bilingual bunkmates with those who are less proficient in English or finding ways to emphasize work-life balance

Initiatives employed by civilian sector companies that DOD may also find fruitful include the following:

  • Spotlighting Hispanic senior executives and leaders to emphasize career growth potential for Hispanic people
  • Increasing engagement in local Hispanic communities via philanthropic endeavors and mentorship programs
  • Conducting recurring organizational assessments to identify specific challenges in growing the Hispanic workforce
  • Designing targeted initiatives to address those challenges and collecting the necessary data to evaluate program effectiveness
  • Communicating to leadership the contributions of a diverse workforce to overall productivity

Despite the breadth of this literature, gaps remain in our understanding of the primary drivers of the Hispanic recruiting, retention, and promotion challenges, many of which are ripe for future analysis. A more broadly scoped follow-on effort could combine quantitative and qualitative data to address most of these knowledge gaps and would ideally include some combination of focus groups, surveys, and additional data collection. The gaps most ripe for additional analysis include the following (along with the general analytic approach required):

  • Given the array of challenges faced in recruiting Hispanic servicemembers, which are most dominant? (focus groups)
  • Is an increase in diversity on promotion boards observed following DOD’s 2020 instruction? (quantitative data analysis)
  • What are the retention effects of the accelerated path to citizenship from service? (focus groups and quantitative data analysis)
  • Are citizenship concerns a current barrier to enlistment? (focus groups and surveys)
  • Have the test preparation materials provided by the Army increased Hispanic servicemembers’ test scores and thus their eligibility for more occupations? (quantitative data analysis)
  • What are the predominant drivers of Hispanic recruits’ occupational choice? Are midcareer occupation changes observed once eligibility hurdles are overcome? (focus groups and quantitative data analysis)
  • Is there evidence that assigning bilingual recruiters to areas with large Hispanic populations has increased accessions in those areas? (quantitative data analysis)
  • What is the conversion rate of Hispanic leads to Hispanic recruits, and how does this rate differ for non-Hispanic people? What are the characteristics of Hispanic people with the highest and lowest conversion rates? (quantitative data analysis)

Most important, we recommend that, moving forward, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives be designed and implemented with evaluation in mind. Identifying the most effective avenues for increasing Hispanic representation across DOD will require carefully designed program and policy evaluation.

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  • Publication Date: 3/13/2024