AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to take a look now at a little-remarked-upon anniversary. Forty-five years ago, the United States stopped drafting young Americans into military service. Since then, the all-volunteer force has fought three major wars and launched countless military operations. NPR is reporting on the recruiting challenges each service is facing. Today - the Navy. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio. Hey there, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So if you're a Navy recruiter trying to convince young people to join, what are you up against?
BOWMAN: Well, quite frankly, you're up against a lot - nearly full employment, high school counselors and parents pushing college, very little family connection to the military today. And get this, Audie - about 70 percent of young people don't meet the qualifications for going into the military. It could be health or physical problems, criminal convictions. So it's a very, very small recruiting pool.
CORNISH: And these challenges are probably being dealt with by the other military branches as well.
CORNISH: But does the Navy have any specific issues that make it even more difficult?
BOWMAN: Well, lengthy deployments at sea - eight months for aircraft carrier battle groups. That puts stress on families, of course. And the jobs are increasingly sophisticated. So the Navy wants more skilled sailors in such areas as computers, cyber, engineering. Also, President Trump plans to build dozens of new warships, so they need a lot more sailors. As Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer has said, we're in a war for talent with the other services. And we had reporter Steve Walsh at member station KPBS in San Diego talk with students about what the Navy is up against.
CORNISH: Well, let's take a listen.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: The basic problem is the same as it was in 1973 - convincing the target audience of kids in their late teens to early 20s that the Navy is their best option. I talked to a group of students at Miramar Community College in San Diego. Marcelo Cong graduated high school last year. He plans to get a degree in electrical engineering.
MARCELO CONG: I feel like the Navy is a great opportunity for someone who doesn't exactly know their path. And the military overall builds a lot of great traits for people who are young and lost. I've had a plan laid out ahead of me ever since I was around 10.
WALSH: San Diego is a big Navy town. Two of the five students in our focus group have parents who served in the military. Nationwide, only 15 percent of this age group have parents who served. Ladonte Hinds' mother and father were both in the Navy.
LADONTE HINDS: Originally, I thought it was just a bunch of boats and, like, sometimes they would fly planes. But then the more I talked to my mom about it, there are people in the Navy who do all types of jobs. You're not just stuck on a boat. But you have a lot of options.
WALSH: Captain Dave Bouve is the chief marketing officer for the Navy.
DAVE BOUVE: The challenge we found was that everybody knew we had a Navy, but there was very little depth of understanding about what the Navy was really about.
WALSH: For the first time in 15 years, the Navy has a new ad agency and a new campaign which debuted this spring.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: There's nothing like a district track meet, bagging groceries at the corner store or crashing a party with your friends.
WALSH: The new campaign is designed to appeal to centennials, the first generation that has never known life without the Internet. Though born into a digital world, Navy research suggests that as a group they like being shaped by real-life experiences. The ads play on that with the tagline forged by the sea.
SEAN HOWARD: It's a popular misconception, unfortunately still, that oftentimes the military is the last hope for the kid that has nowhere else to go. And that's absolutely just not the truth.
WALSH: That's Sean Howard with the ad agency Young & Rubicam. They spent a couple of years talking to sailors before coming up with forged by the sea.
HOWARD: The idea was born out of talking to the sailors themselves of all ranks in all operations.
WALSH: The ads also target the people who influence future sailors. Pentagon data shows that grandparents are the most likely to encourage young people to join the service. Moms are the least likely. Here's Angela Lemmi (ph) from our focus group. She's a returning college student with two kids in middle school.
ANGELA LEMMI: It wouldn't be my first choice for them just because of the danger. And as a mom, obviously you want to protect.
WALSH: Pentagon data shows that a majority of kids think the military will leave them with physical and emotional problems. Captain Bouve says that presents yet another recruiting challenge.
BOUVE: I think the data shows that the assumption that it's much more common than - it's not nearly as common as people seem to think that it is.
WALSH: The Pentagon surveys the youth market twice a year. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are the most likely to say that they're leaning towards joining the military in the next couple of years. But interest goes down when the economy improves. And then there's the challenge of reaching prospective recruits.
When's the last time you've seen, like, a Navy commercial on TV?
CHELSEA CRESENCIAS: That's a good question. I don't really remember, actually.
WALSH: Chelsea Cresencias (ph) is in her third year of community college. She hopes to eventually transfer to UCLA.
CRESENCIAS: I still go on the Internet, but as far as cable I don't really watch a ton of commercials or just live TV anymore.
WALSH: Last year, the Navy spent 70 percent of its ad budget on TV commercials. By next year, 70 percent will be spent online. None of this is cheap, though neither the Navy nor the ad agency would say how much it costs. One business journal says the five-year contract is worth $457 million. With new ships coming online, the Navy plans to add more than 20,000 sailors in the next five years. They hope they have a hit on their hands with forged by the sea.
CORNISH: And again, that's reporter Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego. He's actually on the line with us right now. Hey there, Steve.
WALSH: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So as you said in this story, mass marketing is not inexpensive, right? Are there any thoughts about how to spread out this cost? How is the Pentagon managing it?
WALSH: Well, it's not cheap. And - now, some things like the survey data is done at the Pentagon level, and then that's shared with the different services. Each service still runs its own ad campaign and its own recruiting campaign. The General Accounting Office (ph) said that you could do things a lot cheaper if you worked together. Imagine one big boiler room with - of just all military recruiters. But the services don't want someone else deciding who should be a Marine or a soldier or a sailor.
So some experts say that the Navy really needs to spend more money to attract the kind of kids like the ones I talked to, to target high-skilled recruits who would ordinarily take their skills to the private sector. Navy is offering incentives that would allow people to come in at a higher pay grade if they have certain software or coding skills.
CORNISH: But that's so specific - right? - tech-savvy, high-skilled would-be recruits. - I mean, are they reaching this intended audience?
WALSH: Well, the head of Navy personnel, Vice Admiral Robert Burke, told Congress back in January that the incentives aren't nearly large enough to compete with the private sector. They've only actually recruited a handful of officers with this program. One of our experts says that they really should spend more money on advertising to really convince high-performing kids that the Navy is right for them. Right now they just spend enough to fill their quotas.
CORNISH: I want to bring NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman back into this conversation. Tom, what does this mean for this idea of the all-volunteer force?
BOWMAN: Well, I think it will continue. But, Audie, it's increasingly becoming a family business, as Steve found in talking with folks around San Diego. Now, many admirals and generals I know at the Pentagon have sons and daughters serving sometimes with them in combat zones. But in my neighborhood just a few miles from the Pentagon, I can think of only one family with a kid in the military. Now, to make the Navy more attractive to sailors and their families, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is pushing the Navy to end its eight-month deployments for carrier battle groups in favor of three-month deployments. And that'll help recruiters as well.
CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
CORNISH: And reporter Steve Walsh of member station KPBS, thanks for your reporting.
WALSH: Thanks, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MILLER AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "ANCHORS AWEIGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.