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By Jay Ballard

A common complaint among companies is that it can be expensive to recruit quality talent – and if the new hire decides to leave shortly after joining a new organization, those expenses are a total loss.

The military is as concerned about recruitment and retention as civilian businesses. A 2005 RAND study on U.S. Army recruiting estimated that it costs approximately $15,000 for each person who makes it to boot camp; when an organization the size of the U.S. military recruits between 155,000 to 200,000 personnel per year, those expenses add up. There is an obvious drive to maximize recruiting success and initial retention, with the following three focal areas being important contributors to that goal.


The primary HR-related expense for the U.S. military is the recruiter program. Recruiters are experienced military members who have been handpicked for the job because they’ve excelled personally and professionally. They tend to be the first military person that most potential recruits have ever met, so it’s important that they are trained in recruiting techniques and can function as role models for their service.

A recruiter’s job is to explain the military to potential recruits as well as identify candidates suited for the military lifestyle. They operate as both salespeople and gatekeepers. Virgin Atlantic has been using this technique for several years – they put some of their best people in the recruiting process in order to increase success by identifying candidates who best align with company culture and energy.

With psychometric testing becoming more prevalent during the interview process, there can be a tendency to rely more on those results and less on a human recruiter’s impressions. The military does test potential recruits, but the recruiters use those results to inform, rather than dictate, their final hiring decision. Using some of these techniques, particularly with regards to the quality of recruiters and the focus on hiring for corporate culture fit, the military sees better candidates and optimizes its future retention goals.


Each U.S. military service conducts entry and exit surveys to track the reasons why recruits join and why they decide to leave. This information is used to fine-tune recruiting slogans and internal programs. For instance, the entry survey given to new recruits in the U.S. Navy has indicated that the top two reasons given for joining the service were that it was a job, and for the training and education benefits. Armed with this information, the Navy is able to focus its recruiting pitch and increase the quality of education programs for service members.

If your organization is small, an informal meeting with new hires to find out why they joined your company could provide valuable information. If your company is large and has a survey program in place, is the data used to refine HR programs, or is it collected to gather dust?

Immediate Immersion

Historically, U.S. Navy boot camp graduates were assigned to operational ships or squadrons, but upon arrival at those new bases they would be diverted to a manpower pool for the first 90 days. This was done so that those units and ships could draw from the manpower pool for cooking, cleaning and operational support without depleting their ranks of trained war fighters. Imagine the impact on a new sailor arriving on an aircraft carrier with visions of participating in flight operations, but unexpectedly enters a reality of scrubbing floors for three months.

One of the most impactful changes the Navy made was to immediately immerse those new sailors in operations so they could gain initial qualifications and experience. They were informed upfront that they would be sent off for 90 days, but they now had a taste of why they joined in the first place. This change to the onboarding process positively impacted morale and increased first tour retention.

A civilian equivalent would be giving new hires initial experience on a major project team before sending them into more entry-level jobs. Ed Catmull describes how the “pay your dues in menial jobs” cultural mindset stifled innovation and creativity at Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc. It might be worth reviewing the first few days of your company’s onboarding process to see if there are ways to generate excitement in your new hires.

Not every military HR program or process is directly applicable to the corporate world, but reviewing these three areas in your company might improve your recruiting and onboarding results.

Jay Ballard is a writer, speaker, consultant and U.S. Navy combat veteran.

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