What Happened to U.S. Military Recruiting and Retention of Enlisted Personnel in 2020 During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The emergence of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the accompanying statewide shutdowns altered traditional models of recruiting and retaining military personnel. The dramatic increase in the unemployment rate and the restrictions on in-person interactions could have changed individuals’ incentives to join or remain in the military.

In a new RAND report, researchers provide an exploratory and descriptive analysis of the changes in military enlisted recruiting and retention during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis covers changes in end strength, enlisted accessions, enlisted retention, the number of enlistment contracts, and the quality of recruits in each month of fiscal year (FY) 2020 relative to those of previous years. The analysis also covers changes in military personnel policies made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors find that end strength and retention increased in each service except for the Marine Corps, accessions decreased in each service except for the Navy, enlistment contracts decreased in each service, and the quality of recruits increased in each service except for the Navy. Changes primarily occurred between March and June 2020. The results suggest that the services primarily focused on retention in order to meet their end strength goals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Findings

  • Relative to FY 2019, the Army increased end strength, decreased accessions, and increased retention. Although the number of enlistment contracts decreased, the quality of recruits increased. The Army also relied more heavily on recruits with prior military service than it did in FY 2019.
  • Relative to FY 2019, the Marine Corps decreased end strength, accessions, retention, and the number of enlistment contracts, but the quality of recruits increased. These changes may reflect a force restructuring plan unveiled by the Marine Corps in March 2020 in addition to pandemic-related difficulties.
  • Relative to FY 2019, the Navy increased end strength, saw only a small change in accessions, and increased retention. It decreased the number of enlistment contracts, and the quality of recruits did not change.
  • Relative to FY 2019, the Air Force increased end strength, decreased accessions, increased retention, decreased the number of enlistment contracts, and increased the quality of recruits.

– Avery Calkins, Beth J. Asch, RAND

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