On April 27, 2021, President Biden boldly signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $15 per hour. According to the accompanying White House fact sheet, this “ensures that hundreds of thousands of workers no longer have to work full time and still live in poverty.” In pursuing this laudable goal, the president has effectively made the federal minimum wage for unskilled contractor workers $31,000 a year.
My question is why is the contractor slinging hash in the mess hall making nearly 60 percent more than the private who is willing to risk everything for his country standing in the chow line? Currently, a new enlistee in the armed forces makes $1,650.30 per month, or roughly $19,803 annualized — an $11,400 difference. This works out to about $9.52 per hour — only if you make the fantastical assumption that new soldiers work only 40 hours a week. It takes a service member serving in the pay grade E-4 with three years of service to make the kind of scratch the dishwasher makes. To fix this, not only does pay for new enlistees need to increase by more than 57 percent, but the raise needs to be applied across the board. You cannot have privates making more than sergeants. Or sergeants more than lieutenants.
Technically, military personnel are “salaried” employees, and pay is just one portion of an enlistee’s compensation package, that also includes housing, medical, educational benefits and a host of other things, including tax-free shopping at the PX. In fact, I fondly remember receiving a form along with my Leave and Earning Statement telling me how I was really swimming in dough based on the benefits I did not know I was receiving. That said, there is also the inherent danger in military jobs, the extended separation from family and friends, the limitations on personal freedoms, the routine 80-120 hour work weeks, and the miserable living conditions during training exercises. On the plus side, there is the bonus of deployments, where a sizable portion of the population is actively trying to kill you. You rarely get that slinging hash.
It is not only military pay that is now suddenly lagging in light of the recently signed executive order. A number of administration proposals, including two years of free college, student loan forgiveness, and increased access to free health care, are also undercutting many of the core benefits that the military uses for recruiting. While many factors impact the why someone joins the military — including duty, honor and country — consistently, one of the biggest reasons is sheer economics. When the economy is good, recruiting historically suffers. When the economy is bad, the quantity and quality of potential recruits increases. If a recent high school graduate can make over $11,000 more in the civilian labor market as an unskilled laborer while getting a free college education, why on earth would he or she enlist?
Pay may soon become the only tool the military has to recruit and retain the best and brightest of our nation’s youth. As it stands, the Army has struggled to meet its recruiting goals the past three years, and seemingly quarterly a report comes out stating that less than 30 percent of today’s youth possess the physical, mental, educational AND moral requirements to even be considered for military service. Big Business is getting in on the act, as well, with companies such as Walmart announcing last March that it raising its average hourly wage to more than $15 per hour to go along with its generous college assistance program.
Regardless of anyone’s personal feeling on the administrations’ actions and policy proposals, the contractor pay raise is here today, and the other proposals are in some form on the way. How we attract and retain soldiers is about to get a lot more expensive. My rough guess is at least over $21 billion more expensive for the Department of Defense based on the proposed $36 billion for base pay alone in the $705.4 billion DoD 2021 budget. And that is assuming a $31,200 baseline for pay is a good enough incentive, and the military does not find itself in a bidding war with the private sector for young talent. Most experts are predicting that the DoD’s budget will stay flat, if not decline, in the coming years. Certainly, no one had a $21 billion, or a 3 percent, increase just to keep pace with personnel costs on their bingo card.
All this comes at a time when we are involved in three wars — unless you want to throw in Kosovo, and extended deployments to Korea and Eastern Europe, as well — and we are facing an increasingly belligerent Russia, a surging threat from China, and rapidly evolving technology breakthroughs that will make upgrading legacy systems obsolete unless upgraded. Hard choices loom on the horizon for defense spending, but compensating military members at the going rate cannot be the billpayer if we want to keep the best military in the world. The current administration is fond of telling the troops they “got their six.”
Well, now it’s time to pay their six.
Retired Army Col. Anthony E. Deane is a veteran of the Cold War, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Kosovo, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he commanded an armored battalion task force, and is the author of “Ramadi Declassified: A Roadmap to Peace in the Most Dangerous City in Iraq.”
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.