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Elizabeth ClelanDaniel LeedsLauren MaloneKevin NgJeffery TobinEduardo Gamarrawith contributions by Cathy Hiatt
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Executive Summary

In recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) has increased its focus on the demographic composition of its force, with numerous initiatives, strategies, and policies aiming to ensure the military reflects the population it serves and that each member can serve with dignity and respect. To this end, several analytic efforts have sought to identify and remove barriers that diverse populations may encounter to serve. Hispanic people are the largest minority group in the US labor force, accounting for 80 percent of new workers. Hispanic people experienced a 4.5 percent growth in their labor force participation (compared with only 0.5 percent growth for non-Hispanic people) from 1990 to 2020. As such, they are increasingly becoming a critical accession source for the military. Congress and DOD, however, are concerned about the low representation of Hispanic servicemembers in the senior enlisted and officer ranks and the potential long-term effects on accessions. Based on this concern, the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) called for a study of Hispanic representation in the Armed Forces. To fulfill this requirement, DOD’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) tasked CNA with analyzing how DOD’s Hispanic representation compares to the civilian population and how each Service recruits, retains, and promotes Hispanic servicemembers. Based on these findings, ODEI tasked us to provide recommendations for addressing the challenges and removing the barriers facing this population.


In this study, we took a combined quantitative and qualitative approach to identify the current state of Hispanic representation and barriers to growing a more ethnically diverse force in DOD. Using data provided by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), we observed Hispanic servicemembers’ representation in the officer and enlisted communities, compared their representation at accession to civilian benchmarks, and estimated differences in Hispanic and non-Hispanic retention and promotion rates. We also conducted a difference-in-differences analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of the Army’s 2001–2005 “Yo Soy El Army” recruitment initiative. Next, we conducted a literature review of Hispanic representation in the military and in the civilian sector to understand the specific challenges faced in recruiting, retaining, and promoting Hispanic servicemembers, as well as any policies and initiatives focused on closing representation gaps. We also held discussions with program officials and diversity-related military and civilian subject matter experts (SMEs). Our objective in these conversations was to collect their insights on challenges Hispanic servicemembers have faced and programs and initiatives that have been the most effective in growing (and maintaining) Hispanic representation. Our synthesis of the information gleaned from these discussions and the literature review helped explain observations from the data.

Hispanic accession representation and recruiting challenges and initiatives

Our accessions analyses revealed that Hispanic servicemembers are underrepresented at accessions. In all Services except the Marine Corps, Hispanic enlisted and officer accessions fall short of the civilian benchmarks. Using the American Community Survey (ACS) from 2001 to 2019, we compared enlisted accessions to the non-institutionalized 18-to-24-year-old population with at least a high school degree, and we compared officer accessions to the non- institutionalized 21-to-39-year-old population with at least a bachelor’s degree. In 2019, across DOD, Hispanic servicemembers represented 22 and 9 percent of enlisted and officer accessions, compared to civilian benchmarks of 23 and 12 percent, respectively (the corresponding numbers for the Marine Corps were 26 and 12 percent). Most Hispanic accessions were from the southern border states, though even in this region they were underrepresented relative to states’ civilian benchmarks. We found that Hispanic recruits’ primary accession challenges include eligibility barriers and cultural challenges that affect recruiting efforts. The most cited Hispanic eligibility barriers include their lower average graduation rates and test scores, coupled with higher obesity and non-citizen rates. Some of the cultural challenges that Hispanic servicemembers face include parental language barriers and mistrust of the military due to military corruption in some countries of origin. Although many initiatives have attempted to bridge these gaps (e.g., the Air Force’s Aviation Inspiration Mentorship program, the Navy’s Junior Officer Diversity Outreach program), none have been evaluated for effectiveness. Our evaluation of the Army’s “Yo Soy El Army” revealed that the program resulted in small accession effects (an increase of 3.9 percentage points), but these effects did not develop until several years after the campaign and were short-lived once the campaign ended. Thus, more extensive and sustained efforts will likely be required to see changes over time, and efforts should be evaluated for success.

Hispanic retention and promotion representation, challenges, and initiatives

Our retention and promotion analyses revealed that Hispanic servicemembers are, on average, not underrepresented after accession. Although a crude snapshot of Hispanic representation by paygrade makes it appear that Hispanic servicemembers are less likely to remain in service and less competitive in the promotion process than their non-Hispanic counterparts, these findings are not sustained when using a cohort approach. That is, when we calculated the percent of servicemembers who reached a particular year of service among those who accessed in the same fiscal year, we found that Hispanic retention is on par with or greater than non- Hispanic retention for both enlisted and officers in all four Services, with one exception: Navy officers. Additionally, we found that conditional promotion rates—promotion conditional on having made it to the previous paygrade—were similar or higher among enlisted Hispanic servicemembers (than among their non-Hispanic counterparts). Among officers, our findings were different: Hispanic officers promote on par with non-Hispanic offers in the Army and Marine Corps but are less likely to promote to O-3 in the Navy and Air Force. The precise mechanisms for these promotion differences require further investigation. Findings from the literature review, our SME discussions, and our data analysis suggest they could be influenced by occupational differences—Hispanic servicemembers are less represented in occupations that tend to promote faster—or potential biases in the promotion system.

Regardless, the largest differences in Hispanic and non-Hispanic representation occur at the accession stage. Should all things remain constant, we would expect to see more Hispanic servicemembers in higher ranks over time given that Hispanic representation has increased in the past decade at lower ranks and it takes time to achieve higher ranks.

We expect that the general findings of on-par (or higher) retention patterns are due to, at least in part, deliberate efforts on the part of DOD and the Services to promote a culture of inclusivity and inculcate a sense of belonging among its servicemembers. A few recent examples are the inclusion of hyphens and accent marks on nametags to reflect names and pronunciations accurately (all Services), language training for non-native English speakers during basic training (Army, Air Force), and partnerships with civilian Hispanic affinity groups (all Services). Among the promotion-related policy changes are the exclusion of photographs from the materials reviewed by promotion boards (and other competitive boards) and updates to promotion board precepts that include language about the importance of equitable opportunity for all servicemembers. However, many of these changes have not been formally evaluated for the extent to which they improve Hispanic representation.

Conclusion and recommendations

Overall, our quantitative analysis revealed that Hispanic servicemembers, on average, are not less likely to promote or remain in service than their peers for most Services and paygrades. Hence, the observed differences in representation at the higher ranks is generally a recruitment issue rather than a retention or promotion issue. For most Services, within an accession cohort, Hispanic servicemembers’ retention and promotion rates are on par with their peers. Thus, any efforts to grow Hispanic representation at the higher ranks must start with growing the Hispanic accession pool from which they are retained and promoted.

Based on these findings, we recommend that DOD and the Services undertake the following:

  • Expand recruiting-related DEI initiatives, with a particular emphasis on those that will help address eligibility barriers and cultural challenges;
  • Maintain efforts to grow an inclusive culture for members of all racial/ethnic groups;
  • Provide forums for the Services to share lessons learned about their DEI initiatives;
  • Ensure that future initiatives have a pre-established data-collection/evaluation plan; and
  • Conduct further analysis to determine
    • why the Marine Corps has had particular success in recruiting Hispanic servicemembers and whether any strategies or lessons learned can be adopted by the other Services;
    • why Hispanic promotion rates are lower for Air Force and Navy officers
    • where knowledge gaps about the military exist for potential Hispanic recruits and Hispanic servicemembers that have accessed into the military; and
    • which DEI initiatives have been most successful in growing Hispanic representation.
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  • Pages: 144
  • Document Number: DRM-2023-U-035649-2Rev
  • Publication Date: 3/13/2024