How the U.S. Army Recruits and Retains Millennials
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Leadership Careers May 5, 2017

How the U.S. Army Recruits and Retains Millennials

Lessons from the mil­i­tary on mak­ing the most of your ambi­tious mil­len­ni­al workforce.

Young soldiers are part of the millennial workforce, and can challenge current army leadership.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Col. Robert Carr

The pop­u­lar image of a mil­len­ni­al” employ­ee is an app-obsessed, T-shirt clad Googler. So per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing that many con­ver­sa­tions about how to recruit and lead mil­len­ni­als focus nar­row­ly on young col­lege grad­u­ates and the tech com­pa­nies that hire them.

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But some employ­ers must attract and man­age a much broad­er swath of mil­len­ni­als. Per­haps few orga­ni­za­tions face a more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge than the U.S. Army. Imag­ine hav­ing to recruit more than 60,000 peo­ple a year, from diverse back­grounds, for posi­tions that may require mov­ing far from fam­i­ly, let­ting go of a lot of civil­ian com­forts, and per­haps even see­ing combat. 

We want to keep our tal­ent,” says Col. Robert Carr, the cur­rent U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fel­low at the Kel­logg School. In that sense we’re no dif­fer­ent from cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca. But that can be espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult in the mil­i­tary,” giv­en the Army’s size (near­ly one mil­lion active, reserve, and nation­al guard sol­diers), its phys­i­cal and dis­ci­pli­nary qual­i­fi­ca­tions, its rel­a­tive­ly mod­est pay, and the com­pe­ti­tion from indus­tries and uni­ver­si­ties for talent. 

Based on his more than 20 years of mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence, Carr says that, when it comes to groom­ing mil­len­ni­als for a mil­i­tary career, it is impor­tant to har­ness young sol­diers’ unique tal­ents with­out com­pro­mis­ing the cul­ture that makes the army tick. 

Our young recruits often come up with new ways of doing things, so you want to encour­age that inge­nu­ity. And it’s not always a bad thing to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. The key is to give them enough lat­i­tude to shake things up a bit with­out upend­ing core tra­di­tions or stan­dard oper­at­ing procedures.”

So how does a large orga­ni­za­tion like the U.S. Army strike this bal­ance? Carr offers tips for effec­tive­ly lead­ing a mil­len­ni­al workforce. 

Rec­og­nize Ambi­tions and Set Expectations

Mil­len­ni­als have a rep­u­ta­tion for being impa­tient and demand­ing, and for expect­ing their employ­ers to offer more flex­i­bil­i­ty. Carr says those enter­ing the mil­i­tary are no exception. 

Some recruits can be very ambi­tious,” Carr says. They don’t want to wait twen­ty years for a senior lead­er­ship role. They think, I’m smart. Why can’t I be a general?’” 

This lev­el of ambi­tion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing — cor­rect­ly chan­neled, it can help strength­en the orga­ni­za­tion. Carr sug­gests empathiz­ing with mil­len­ni­als, most of whom view a stint in the Army as a means to an end — it pays for col­lege; it guar­an­tees ben­e­fits. But it is equal­ly impor­tant to tem­per their ambi­tion with a bit of real­ism about their future prospects. 

For exam­ple, it is impor­tant to stress that although an Army career can lead to great oppor­tu­ni­ties down the road, the first two years might be dif­fi­cult, with unde­sir­able assign­ments, a lot of grunt work, and pret­ty low wages. Tak­ing a longer-term view — and encour­ag­ing reen­list­ment — can be eas­i­er when expec­ta­tions are set in advance. 

For those who put in the time and have the right ded­i­ca­tion and apti­tude, there’s more flex­i­bil­i­ty,” Carr says. Like any­one, mil­len­ni­als will leave orga­ni­za­tions unless they have good rea­sons to stay. So you need to give them some­thing to aspire to.” 

As impor­tant as sol­id pay, time off, and ide­al­ly a scenic assign­ment can be, for many mil­len­ni­als in an uncer­tain job mar­ket, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to receive advanced edu­ca­tion and spe­cial­ized train­ing with trans­fer­able skills is a real moti­va­tor. Giv­en the range of jobs one can do as a ser­vice mem­ber, the Army is in a good posi­tion to set peo­ple up for reward­ing careers. But this only works if senior lead­ers act as pos­i­tive mentors. 

Mil­len­ni­als will leave orga­ni­za­tions unless they have good rea­sons to stay. So you need to give them some­thing to aspire to.”

If some­one wants to be a satel­lite oper­a­tor, but they only test­ed high enough to be a cook in their first go-around, they might need a sec­ond chance. If that per­son is seri­ous, we want them to reenlist. 

For lead­ers, encour­ag­ing reen­list­ment requires that they estab­lish an envi­ron­ment that is both sup­port­ive and real­is­tic about the soldier’s prospects, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on coach­able moments and look­ing for incre­men­tal improvements. 

Com­mu­ni­cate on Their Level

One dif­fer­ence between mil­len­ni­als and oth­er gen­er­a­tions is that they tend to have dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward work – life bal­ance and dis­plays of effort. Where­as pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions might choose to stay late in the office, or go the extra mile, mil­len­ni­als are more like­ly to bud­get their time effi­cient­ly with­out much con­cern for the optics. 

They’ll say, I have a lot on my plate today. What should I prioritize?’” 

Carr says lead­ers should view this as a gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence rather than insub­or­di­na­tion. Most young recruits, after all, care about get­ting the job done. They may just go about it dif­fer­ent­ly than their pre­de­ces­sors. To see these dif­fer­ences in action, Carr sug­gests get­ting out from behind the desk to observe mil­len­ni­als in their work envi­ron­ments and allow them to demon­strate expertise. 

Go into their space,” he says. Meet them where they are.” 

In the Army, com­man­ders and pla­toon lead­ers are expect­ed to walk the halls per­form­ing equip­ment checks, touch­ing base, and acknowl­edg­ing the work being done. It’s impor­tant to take the pulse of your orga­ni­za­tion, and some­times allow peo­ple to assert their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Peo­ple always want to feel like they are adding value.” 

And meet­ing them where they are” goes beyond hall-walk­ing. Carr sug­gests keep­ing in mind all of the new­er ways peo­ple net­work and share exper­tise, includ­ing on dig­i­tal plat­forms. Online forums like com​pa​ny​comman​der​.org and pla​toon​leader​.org cre­ate open forums in which to share ideas, not just places to gripe about — or go around — lead­er­ship. Pla­toon lead­ers often keep their own blogs, and even senior lead­ers are known to crowd­source bet­ter solutions. 

Ulti­mate­ly, lead­ers need to do what it takes to speak mil­len­ni­als’ language. 

Lead­ers tend to get frus­trat­ed when mil­len­ni­als chal­lenge them,” Carr says. And it’s true that some mil­len­ni­als can be very out­spo­ken. But usu­al­ly what they’re doing is stretch­ing, which isn’t always a bad thing. As a senior leader, you have to have the dis­cern­ment to say: This mil­len­ni­al isn’t chal­leng­ing author­i­ty; they’re chal­leng­ing the way things have been done,’ which forces you to be more agile, flex­i­ble, and innovative.” 

Give Them Room to Innovate

The Army is real­iz­ing that its mil­len­ni­al sol­diers may have inge­nu­ity and exper­tise that will only rise to the sur­face if giv­en space. After all, impor­tant changes can come from any­where in an organization. 

When Carr was serv­ing as a com­pa­ny com­man­der sta­tioned in a remote loca­tion in Nicaragua, he was tasked with solv­ing a com­plex water-drainage prob­lem caused by a severe hur­ri­cane. Nat­u­ral­ly, he turned to his senior lead­ers, none of whom were par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful. But a 19-year old vehi­cle oper­a­tor — a truck mechan­ic — spoke up to say he knew how to get the job done. His pla­toon leader asked him to stand down. But Carr gave him the floor, and the young pri­vate, bare­ly a year into his Army career, fixed the problem. 

He became our mas­ter train­er on drainage sys­tems, and the lead­ers were his first stu­dents,” Carr says. It takes matu­ri­ty on a leader’s part to say, I’m going to go down there and talk to that pri­vate and real­ly lis­ten, because he seems to know what he’s doing.’ In this instance, the lead­ers con­fused man­age­ment with leadership.” 

But it is impor­tant to know when to allow peo­ple to exper­i­ment and when to stick to the script. 

Dur­ing train­ing, you might dis­cuss the pros and cons of going left or right when you come under fire,” Carr says. But when there’s actu­al fire, the time for debat­ing the process is over. You don’t have time to have that debate, or to fail fast.’ You trust your mus­cle mem­o­ry — so there needs to be a pro­ce­dure in place.” 

You don’t want a bunch of bob­ble­heads who can’t think for them­selves, but you do want to pro­vide dis­ci­pline and struc­ture to the way that mil­len­ni­als present new ideas,” Carr says. This gives the mil­i­tary a frame­work to hon­or the past, cap­i­tal­ize on the moment, and pos­ture for the future.”

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.

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