Diversity Continues to Challenge the Military

In 2008, Congress formed the Military Leadership Diversity Commission to analyze promotion rates for minorities in the military and develop strategies to make the armed forces more reflective of the nation’s diverse population. Today, African Americans make up 18.5% of enlistment, 9.5% of all officer corps, and 6% of the general officer corps, a marginal increase from last year. According to Clarence “C.J.” Johnson, principal director of the office of diversity management and equal opportunity at the Department of Defense, not much more can be expected after two years, particularly at the senior levels.

First, he explains, it takes 25 years to advance to the rank of general. But more importantly, he adds, many young African Americans don’t view the military as a long-term career goal. Many focus on developing careers in four years that are marketable “on the outside.” But there is also a strategic path that leads to higher levels of the military in positions that include Air Force pilot; infantry, battle-tested Marine and Army officers; and tactical operations across the board–areas that women and minorities tend not to select. Johnson acknowledges that in addition to exploring ways to expose more women and minorities to those fields, Defense is also looking at civilian businesses and organizations for clues about how to help those demographic groups advance.

“I think mentoring is a key factor that influences career choices” he offers, “How you talk to and encourage people to consider some of the critical military occupations. There is work to be done in that regard, and we continue to look at ideas on how to influence that.”

The Coast Guard Academy, for example, is working on developing a “long-lasting pipeline” by bringing innovative science programs and activities to middle schools and high schools in key markets. Antonio Farias, the academy’s diversity affairs director, stresses that efforts should not just focus on increasing numbers, but making sure candidates are supported and positioned to succeed. African Americans make up just 2.5% of the student body and Hispanics account for 7% to 8%. The 2014 incoming class is its most diverse since 1999, with 16 African Americans out of a class of 290 students. And although still small in number, this year’s minority students are the most academically prepared. In addition, they arrive on campus early to participate in a pre-orientation mentoring program designed to give them the moral support they need as individuals and a group to succeed. “We’re not just trying to change the crayon box,” says Farias, “we want to make sure they’re successful once they come through the door.”

The Coast Guard, which is 5.6% African American, 11% Hispanic, and 13.4% female, recently celebrated its first African American flag officer to earn three stars and its second female vice commandant.

“Minority retention, officer and enlisted, is at an all-time high, more than 90%, and actually slightly exceeds majority retention rates,” reports Gender Policy Advisory Cmder. Carol Stundtner. “To date, for fiscal year 2010, our active duty enlisted recruits are 39.9% minority and 29.7% women.”

Recruiting and retaining minorities, particularly in the officer ranks, presents an ongoing challenge for each military branch. The Coast Guard Academy, however, is hopeful that community outreach may ultimately be the key.
Air Force spokeswoman Beth Gosselin agrees: “Reaching out to underrepresented demographic groups around the country to educate them on Air Force opportunities, both in uniform and as civilians, helps youth and their mentors understand the benefit of serving in the Air Force and military in general. We are committed to being a leading competitor in the war for talent.” Overall, the branch is 7.04% Hispanic, 12.7% African American, and 19.4% female, with its greatest challenge in attracting diverse applicants at the officer level. “The Air Force has great diversity within the enlisted ranks,” Gosselin says. “The competition is keen with corporate America, as well as our sister services, for the same group of highly qualified diverse college graduates.”

The Navy reports that its diversity efforts have been successful in the recruitment of both minorities and women. According to Capt. Ken Barrett, there has been dramatic improvement in the past year with regard to women, who now represent approximately 15.3% of its force. African Americans and Hispanics represent 8.08% and 6.22% of the officer ranks and 18.26% and 17.21% of enlistment, respectively.

“We have diversity outreach officers in major markets and we added outreach officers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta,” offers Barrett. “We also have done a lot to network among educators, business leaders, and government officials to get the Navy message out there and access untapped markets.”

And although the Navy works to ensure that members of all demographic groups receive the support needed to achieve major milestones and key assignments that lead to faster promotions, Barrett points out that the branch also has made a special effort to expose racial and ethnic minorities to service affinity groups through which enlisted men and women can meet and be mentored by senior officers from similar backgrounds.