Fast food or the military? Recruiting solutions overlook the obvious

by Vern Evans

Recruits for our nation’s military are in short supply. Proposed solutions are not. Eliminating “wokeism,” extolling the value of service, and changing recruitment standards, among many others, have all been offered as fixes to the ongoing recruiting crisis.

Caught amid the morass of solutions, it appears that the services have been overlooking the most obvious solution: raising the pay of junior enlisted. Contrasting what an Army E-3 or E-4 earns in the military with pay earned in the fast food industry in California reveals this to be true.

As detailed in my newly published analysis, the need for a large pay increase among the E-1 to E-4 pay grades is clear when one considers the new fast food minimum wage in California. Starting April 1, most fast food workers in the state will be paid a minimum of $20 per hour.

Factor in this wage increase, couple it with free meals (valued at $1,193 per year) provided during shifts, and subtract the cost of medical insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act (valued at $2,256 per year) and a 19-year-old working at a Los Angeles, California-area McDonald’s would earn roughly $40,537 per year.

Now, compare that to the earnings of an Army E-3 with less than two years of service. Starting with base pay, this soldier would earn about $2,377.50 per month, or $28,530 per year. Add in benefits, such as an automatic 1% match on their Thrift Savings Plan account and Basic Allowance for Subsistence pay, while keeping medical costs steady at zero, and the Army E-3 earns $34,338 per year. In other words, the 19-year-old McDonald’s employee would earn about 18% more than the Army E-3.

While the gap narrows if we were to compare a 21-year-old McDonald’s employee with a 21-year-old Army E-4, it still pays less to serve. The implications of this are clear: If it pays less to serve, one may be less inclined to join the military, at least from an economic standpoint.

As a note of caution, comparing civilian and military pay is an inexact science to say the least. The range of benefits that a service member receives differs substantially, in some cases, from what a civilian may receive. That said, in the measure that often matters most and may be the most comprehensible to recruits — cash compensation — the military is falling behind entry-level private sector wages in its largest recruiting market of California.

Given this, what are our service chiefs to do? They should call for a significant wage increase for our junior enlisted, along the lines of 20%. This should be directed to service members in the E-1 to E-4 pay grades, with raises distributed to the E-5 to E-9 pay grades as appropriate.

While 20% seems like a hefty sum, it is far from unprecedented. In the early 1980s, the annual military pay raise increased by over 35 percent. And, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, raises were targeted to specific pay grades. Last summer, House appropriators also signaled their willingness to provide such an increase in their efforts to rewrite pay tables for the benefit of junior enlisted service members.

Already, we are seeing what failures in military recruiting can do to force structure. While the Army’s recent cuts are the right move, they are a harbinger of what’s to come if the military doesn’t get its recruiting house in order. Putting recruiting back on track will require attention and action in the area where such efforts are needed most: pay for our junior enlisted.

It’s time for the service chiefs to call for such a pay increase, and for the president and Congress to heed it. The costs and implications of an increase are certainly substantial, no less because of the budget caps currently in place that are restraining the Pentagon’s budget. But, a failure to recruit means a failure to man, and thus a failure to deter and fight. And that would be a disaster for our national security.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari is a senior nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Ferrari previously served as a director of program analysis and evaluation for the service.

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