The U.S. military is competing across the services and with the private sector to employee service members amid a contracting field of qualified recruits, the Navy secretary said on Monday.
"Depending on what article you read, the number of potential applicants that would successfully qualify for our services range somewhere from 25 to 30 percent," Sec. Richard Spencer said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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"Going forward, we're all going to have a real war for talent. The three of us up here fish from the same pool and we're all going to be looking for more people to do more things in a more intelligent manner."
Spencer spoke alongside Army Secretary Mark Esper and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on the challenges facing the military and key priorities in President Donald Trump's 2019 defense budget proposal. The three service secretaries agreed that the Pentagon's top priority must be continued investment in people.
Last month, the Heritage Foundation published a study finding that roughly 24 million of the 34 million Americans between 17 and 24 years old, or 71 percent, are unable to serve in the military due to obesity, criminal record, or lack of education. That leaves just a quarter of young Americans eligible to enlist in the armed services, posing an "alarming" threat to national security, the report found, citing Pentagon data.
The contracted pool risks derailing the Trump administration's path to rebuilding a depleted military. Trump's $686 billion defense budget seeks to expand the military by 25,900 troops through October 2019 and by another 56,600 by 2023—most of which would serve active duty.
Wilson said a sluggish hiring process has exacerbated the problem. It takes the four branches roughly six months to hire a civilian to the service and the backlog for security clearances has doubled over the past 18 months, according to Wilson.
"That doesn't even come close to what we need to be able to do to get the talent for the services," she said.