Recruitment Lessons, Straight from the Navy Recruiting Command

Amy McDonnell

“Diversity is included in everything we do – it’s a critical part of our mission. It’s so ingrained in what we do that we don’t even really see it.”

These were some of the words spoken by Cmdr. Brent Phillips, Director of Marketing and Advertising for the Navy Recruiting Command, on day two of the recent ERE Expo in Hollywood, FL. During his “The Navy’s Record Year” keynote, Cmdr. Phillips discussed many facets of the Navy’s recruitment successes and challenges — many of which translate not only to the entire military, but to employers in general. Below are some highlights about the Navy’s specific recruiting challenges, growth/success metrics, and tips that may inspire other employers or recruiters:

What’s it like to work for the Navy? A workplace snapshot

  • 284 ships in commission
  • 3700+ operational aircraft
  • Personnel deployed: 52, 585
  • Then (1992): 550,000 active duty; 406 ships
  • Now (2011): 328,266 active duty, 203,796 Navy civilians, 102,080 reserves
  • Navy recruiting command: Hiring 45,000 people a year, consisting of 42,079 enlisted, 3,989 officers, and 4,220 NROTC applications
  • Hiring 45,000 people/year

Should be easy to reach their goals with such a great brand, right? Not so fast. “Lots of people have reservations about recruiting for the Navy,” said Phillips. The reasons are widespread, but many stem from either physical concerns, fear (war and high-risk situations often pop into people’s minds) and cultural elements. Some of the most common concerns include those offered from the audience: “I hate push-ups; “I can’t swim” (the point, as Phillips jokes, is to stay on the ship, not to fall off of it); “I’m going to have to cut my hair”; and “Where will I work, geographically? I have to leave home.”

Some of these are real concerns, and Phillips acknowledges that they are a barrier the Navy deals with all the time. He went on to address other challenges the Navy faces both internally and externally.

Some of the Navy’s current recruitment challenges:

  • Complex Mission: The Navy has what they call a “FIT” standard for talent — they need the right person, doing the right job, at the right time. In the old days, Phillips said, you took a test to determine that you were morally and physically qualified, and then you were “in,” your job was chosen, and you were sent to it. Now, they have “gotten away from sending a general product downrange,” as he calls it, and it’s top-notch quality being sent off to boot camp. When you go to boot camp, you know what you will be doing after, and you’ve had all the security, financial, and background checks already done and the physical screenings taken care of. But this FIT element, Phillips added, is like finding a blade of grass in a haystack, it results in frustration on part of applicants and recruiters, and it can be a strain on the most valuable resource — time.
  • A shrinking population of qualified and interested youth: Phillips asked audience members for a show of hands as to how many of their family members were in the military. Overall, he got about 50 percent raised hands; fewer, he said, than he would have gotten years ago. It used to be that entire families would consider the military as line of work — that 70 percent in that same audience would have raised their hands. Interest and military participation as a family tradition has dwindled, and with it a portion of the Navy’s target market. In addition, the skill sets for which the Navy is recruiting are intense; 98 percent of nuclear power plants, for instance, are run by Navy-trained officers — and this requires finding a very technically astute individual. Not easy to find, especially when two-thirds of the market (17- to 24-year-old males) isn’t even qualified to join the Navy.
  • Navy Awareness lags all other services: In many ways, Phillips said, the Navy is invisible to America. You can’t get on naval bases without an escort in most cases, if there’s even one near you — which makes it difficult for people to penetrate the barriers and get to know what the organization is really like. In addition, they have their own language of sorts — they use particular words for things that the general public isn’t necessarily familiar with, and they’re an insular, close-knit community. Kind of like an exclusive club, really — but this rep doesn’t do much for raising awareness.
  • Resource reductions and the changing economy pose a moderate risk in the near term: Marketing for complex jobs is difficult, Phillips pointed out. The Department of Defense has taken a $26 billion reduction, so trying to make decisions on whether to spend money on recruiting or equipment needs can prove to be quite challenging.
  • There’s a high demand for professional skill sets in the private sector: The Navy also struggles with people relatively immune to unemployment — people with very specific skill sets and an advanced level of education, like doctors, chaplains, and dentists. With a shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. and many parishes in need of them, for example, it’s hard for the Navy to justify taking them away — and it can cause quite a dilemma.
  • A sense of identity and awareness among the public: The Navy has suffered from the lack of a clear identity and awareness among the broader American public. News reporters and the public at large believe the Navy is manned by generals and soldiers, and they don’t know what service actually entails or what kind of impact the Navy has on their daily lives. Without this foundation, it’s difficult for the general public to support Naval efforts. This hurts when it comes to getting the right people in the door. There is currently a 7 percent female interest in the Navy, compared to an 18 percent male interest in the Navy. There’s a steady decline for female interest, though the Navy has more and more jobs opening for females — it’s a problem of perception versus reality. Not only does the Navy want more female recruits — it needs them. They’re about to onboard their first female submariners, which is huge.

How the Navy has overcome some of its biggest challenges:

As Phillips shed light on how the Navy has tackled some of these challenges and achieved a record year for recruiting, it struck me that many employers face the same types of recruiting challenges — and that the solutions were often ones that translate outside the military environment.

  • A supportive work environment: Phillips talks about his early days of being a recruiter, when employment was only 3.8 percent in Phoenix. The district missed their recruitment goals by a huge margin, and he says the one thing that helped turn things around was visiting the sailors in their stations and examining their work environment, and listening to what bothered them. Many things were in disrepair, and it bugged them; they didn’t feel the pride and professionalism they had felt before. After a year of this, the district started to make its recruitment goals again.
  • Ensuring quality of talent: Putting great talent in your open positions does, as we all know, make a huge difference in the business. Measure enlisted quality by 1) high school diploma graduates and 2) how they score on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) — Phillips describes the latter as the SATs for the military. Eighty-eight percent score on the upper tier for this test, and 98 percent of enlistees have a high school diploma (77 percent is the minimum). Their recruiters must be doing something right: Their new hire program is holding at 11 percent attrition — as Phillips said, “that takes a lot of time and attention and effort.
  • Recruiters who get it: The Navy dubs their recruiters “Sailors on recruiting duty” — and for good reason. Although the brand image of the military recruiter isn’t that great (Phillips mentioned the common perceptions being someone who’s stressed, running toward a quota and will tell you whatever you want to hear to get you to sign the bottom line), “It’s anything but.”Their recruiters are actually high-performing sailors in the fleet who have done very well and qualified to become recruiters. They do three years of recruiting duty, then go back to the fleet to work alongside the people they brought into the Navy. In other words, if they recruit bad people, they’re stuck working with bad people. The Navy is a small community, Phillips stressed that “we can get tough with each other with one phone call and one email, and we do. If you send a bad product (recruit), the fleet’s going to tell you. We’re picking our own team.”
  • Better communication efforts:The Navy has adopted a multi-channel approach to fuel awareness. When it comes to the Navy’s communication efforts, Phillips tells his colleagues, “It’s not one thing; it’s everything.”
  • A simpler website. Whereas before, their website was full of internal language and buzzwords (sound familiar?), they realized potential candidates didn’t understand much of the language and fancy job titles and terms they were using — only internal employees did. This was hurting recruitment efforts. Now, the website is written from the point of view of someone who’s never been in the Navy. Users of the site want to understand what they would be doing in simple, straightforward terms, as complicated job titles no one understands causes many to lose interest.“Do you like solving puzzles” makes much more sense to a potential recruit than “Cryptologist.” “We have to put it in the language of our target market. Try to navigate your own website from someone who doesn’t speak your internal language,” said Phillips. And he made a great point — once these candidates come into your organization, they’re going to learn to speak your language.
  • Branding. As the Navy realized they suffered from a lack of identity and awareness, not only from the general public, but within their own organization, they decided to go down the pathway of branding. Prior to 2009, Navy’s communication efforts focused exclusively on short-term goals. i.e. recruiting prospects. The organization has had four different recruiting slogans since the inception of an all-volunteer force, all targeted to prospects ages 18-24 focused on a “what’s in it for me” proposal (do you remember the “Navy. It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure” or “Accelerate your life” campaigns?) They realized that these campaigns were very inward-focused, but they weren’t cohesive with what the Navy was about as a whole. They didn’t speak to older workers, Navy family, or retirees — and that’s a big part of the organization. Now, their mission statement is, “America’s Navy is the global force that protects the world by whatever means necessary 24/7.” This has been adapted into many different campaigns, but the message is true to their mission across the board.
  • Diversity-focused engagement: Phillips says they view diversity as a strategic imperative — and that it’s not just about race or ethnicity. “Your Navy forces should look like the population and the people it serves.” The Navy has initiated many diversity-focused efforts — but as Phillips said, when asked what portion of his budget was reserved for diversity recruiting, he answered: “All of it.” “Diversity is included in everything we do – it’s a critical part of our mission. It’s so ingrained in what we do that we don’t even really see it. “But how did they get to this point — a point in which diversity just happens? The truth is, it takes a lot of outreach. They partner with various affinity groups like the National Society of Black Engineers, groups which are primarily student-focused and engineering-based, and they engage with them on a national, regional, and local level. This way, they start putting the Navy into students’ consideration process early on. The Navy also lets some of these students explore Navy jobs actually experiencing time with the Navy on the ships. They’re able to talk to people and ask them anything — and they tend to get honest answers about what they do and don’t like about their job, and to get the inside scoop from employees who are really proud of what they do. After all, is there a better way to get a real sense of an organization and its people than by talking to them?The Navy has also created focused diversity marketing and advertising campaigns. Phillips recognizes that building trust takes time. As he put it, “you can’t ‘surge’ trust.'” They start early and often. “As we’re out there in the community, building trust is continual. With that, I have to make investment decisions that may not give me an immediate return on my investment. You have to start the investment early — that’s how you get top quality people.”
  • Evolving technology: The military’s IT is the largest Intranet in the world, Phillips said, but it’s built for security, not designed to be mobile or have 4G connectivity. “It’s designed around our primary business lines, but it doesn’t fit recruiting.” Yet, the recruiting command has made huge improvements. “We just armed our recruiters with laptops and mobile connectivity, and a biometric thumb device. Now, when signing paperwork, candidates sign with a thumbprint rather than a signature. This allows us to get to near real-time processing.” Sometimes, it’s the small process adjustments and simplifications that can make a huge difference in your recruiting (on both sides of the interview chair).
  • Social media engagement: “We had a great plan. Be ready to change your plan. We have a saying that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy,'” Phillips said, laughing. Initially, they had created 15 Facebook pages focusing on different elements of the Navy. Recruiters were already connected and wired, so Phillips had them respond to inquiries and comments. The problem? Some did, but some also left — and when they did leave without anyone to take their place, that hurt engagement on the pages. They had to retool their plan, and “Now, I have 50 core recruiters at headquarters who respond to social media. Now, questions don’t go unanswered and engagement happens.” Of course, there’s good engagement (Recruiter to candidate: Here’s where you go to find out info, and if you have more questions, get in contact with me) and bad (Go to the website), and encouraging the good engagement is an ongoing process. is one of their most successful social media efforts, with 1,222 new members per month, more than 10,000 discussions on site, and a true sense of community and Navy mothers helping each other — it’s taken on a life of its own.

Phillips included a great quote from Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, part of which stated, “Many of our organizations have focused on leaders as communicators. Now, we have the chance to be leaders of communicators.” In social media, this couldn’t be more true — and organizations that get this are way ahead of those that don’t. Times continue to change, and, from what Cmdr. Phillips said at the ERE Expo, the Navy is learning to change along with them. 


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