Is Generation Z the answer to current recruiting woes?

Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, commanding general, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, delivers the oath of enlistment to eight new Army accessions at a Future Soldier Swear-In ceremony conducted Oct. 20, 2023. Karbler inducted the new recruits in front of more than 900 students at the Paul G. Blazer High School in Ashland, Kentucky.

November 3, 2023 | Events, Leadership

William F. Merck II, Author, Leader, Speaker

by William F. Merck II

Events | Leadership
Bill talks with Will Martin at the Reserve & National Guard Magazine about recent struggles in recruiting and retaining qualified military personnel.

Is Generation Z the answer to current recruiting woes? One expert thinks so.

by Will Martin, November 1, 2023

When Bill Merck joined the Army in 1969, it was largely a matter of controlling his own destiny.

“The draft was in play, Vietnam was going on,” said Merck, who, shortly after earning his master’s degree, received his draft notice. “I was a little older, around 23, (so) I decided I wanted to be an officer.”

The experience, though short-lived, was transformative for Merck, who after military service rose to senior executive ranks in higher education and authored books on a life of leadership. He’s confident military enlistment offers life-changing promise for rising generations today, as well – if only we can learn to reach them.

“I was in the Army for three years and it was an incredibly good experience for me,” Merck said. “We need to help these young people understand what they can gain through military service.”

The Armed Forces’ recent struggles in recruiting and retaining qualified personnel is well-documented. In July, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth conceded during congressional testimony that the Army would undoubtedly fall short of its “stretch goal” of 65,000 recruits for the year. Little wonder, really, given that less than a quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds meet physical or academic enlistment standards.

“The bar to get into the military is high,” wrote retired Navy Adm. James Stravidis in a July 2023 analysis piece for The Washington Post. “The Pentagon is competing with universities and the private sector for a small segment of each year’s high school graduates.”

Merck believes, however, that some of the struggles can also be traced to a misunderstanding on what makes Generation Z tick, arguing that it’s more than college money and 401ks.

“The conversation often circles around pay, because there’s a financial insecurity around Gen Zers,” said Merck. “(But) a lot of what the Army has to offer a young person never gets discussed.”

Merck recalls how after exiting the military, he applied for a leadership position with Madison College (now James Madison University), but it became apparent after interviewing he probably didn’t qualify for the gig. But after a couple years as a platoon leader, Merck wasn’t about to surrender to fate.

“This is where my military experience came in,” said Merck, referencing the well-tested maxim of “improvise, adapt, and overcome.”

Merck had learned that the hiring official, himself a retired Army colonel, had just inherited oversight of student housing. Sensing he was eager to delegate the responsibility, Merck proactively offered to take it off his plate, boldly urging the colonel to test his mettle.

“He called me the next day and offered me a job,” said Merck.

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