- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2021

Count the world of military recruiting as one more that the coronavirus crisis turned upside down in 2020.

Even before COVID-19 grew into a pandemic, bringing sufficient numbers of qualified young men and women into the ranks was a daunting challenge to military recruiters because of a booming economy and declining enthusiasm for a military career.

According to Army Recruiting Command, half of the nation’s youths say they know little to nothing about military service and more than 70% don’t qualify without a waiver for myriad reasons, including obesity, physical and mental health problems, and misconduct.

But it was changes and restrictions across society from the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the Pentagon to take a fresh look at selling military service to American youths.

“We looked at all the different ways we can go out to reach all parts of America. How do we go out and find these young Americans who would be interested in service but just don’t know that the opportunity exists?” former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told The Heritage Foundation shortly before he was fired by President Trump in November.



“It’s a big effort, and it’s a strategic challenge that will last many years,” Mr. Esper said.

In the days before COVID-19, Senior Master Sgt. Christopher P. Flynn, chief of the 911th Air Wing Recruiting Flight, said Air Force recruiters relied on face-to-face meetings, school visits and job fairs to bring in the next generation of airmen. But that was then.

“The mission must go on, right?” Sgt. Flynn said. “We still need to meet the approximately 70,000 [airmen] end strength, and not only is retention a big part of that but recruiting is a big part of that.”

In March, the Army closed its doors to some 1,400 recruiting stations throughout the country and switched to an online-only effort. The Army managed to inch past its personnel target for the 2020 fiscal year by persuading more soldiers to remain in uniform. In spite of a dip in initial recruitment figures, the service finished up a “few hundred” troops ahead of its 485,000-soldier target, Army officials said.

It was “a challenging year for the nation, and it has been no different for us,” said Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

Because the stakes are so high and the decision potentially life-changing, recruiters traditionally have met with young men and women face to face, said Beth J. Asch, an economist at the Rand Corp. who specializes in military recruiting.

“While the recruiters certainly take advantage and make use of social media in all of its various forms, when push comes to shove, it’s face-to-face — sitting down his or her parents or significant other,” Ms. Asch said.

Reaching Gen Z

But the armed services were quickly realizing that Generation Z, the demographic cohort after millennials, lives as much online as it does in real life. One way the Army is adapting to the new reality is through e-sports teams. The messages are designed to convince online gamers that there is a place for them in the Army.

“If we are going to be successful in recruiting, then we need to be where young people are, and they are operating in the digital world,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, who recently stepped down as head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

The Army also is relying on active soldiers who play competitive online games to help potential recruits connect with other young gamers.

“They will have the ability to start a dialogue about what it is like to serve in our Army and see if they are interested in joining,” Gen. Muth said.

Even so, uncertainty about the pandemic has caused the services to lose qualified applicants. Even with precautionary health measures in place, military recruiters say it is challenging to persuade some people to talk to them.

The recruiters have been reaching out to young prospects through text messages, online events and other forms of social media. The Army began that process even before COVID-19, but the pandemic forced each service to accelerate the process.

“It forced us to adapt,” Mr. Esper said. “We tried to find the opportunity in a crisis.”

Sgt. Flynn said one of his recruiters hosted an online job fair to reach potential candidates.

“It was a chatroom. People logged into a website and would click on the Air Force Reserve logo, and they would chat with him online,” he said. “He got about 50 leads from that event.”

The Pentagon has more flexibility recruiting and retaining enlisted personnel than it does with commissioned officers, whose numbers are mandated by Congress. The services can temporarily adapt to lower initial figures by altering promotion rates that determine how quickly someone can move up the ranks, Ms. Asch said.

“It’s within historical norms of what the Army has dealt with in the past,” she said. “It’s the type of issue they have experience with over so many years dealing with it.”

Some of the recruiting decisions military officials have taken may remain in place even after COVID-19 is under control. People may be more willing to engage with others in a virtual environment than in the past, Ms. Asch said.

“So many people have been working in a virtual environment,” she said. “We are getting used to talking to each other this way.”

There is talk about reducing the number of recruiters — one of the biggest expenses for the services in the endeavor — if they can continue to make the target numbers with more of an emphasis on online efforts. Recruiting stations are spread throughout the country. Although they are often among the top performers in the individual services, recruiters aren’t usually deployable, Ms. Asch said.

“I think there is going to be a lot of soul-searching about what worked and what didn’t work and what can work in the future,” she said. “There is motivation and an interest in this.”

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