This year to be the toughest year for Air Force recruiting in a decade

News

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

The Air Force saluted 18 of its top recruiters at an annual pep rally here Tuesday in what is shaping up to be the toughest year in more than a decade for their job of attracting young people to join the service.

In a tradition that dates to 1979, the “Blue Suit” award recipients, chosen for their high-impact leadership and surpassing of recruiting goals, were greeted by Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr., and other dignitaries at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s iconic administration building, the Taj Mahal.

After a good performance during the 2020-2021 economic slowdown, they and other recruiters are facing problems military people often euphemistically call challenges. The job has become harder than ever, Thomas warned in a memo three months ago.

“Not two years into a pandemic, and we have warning lights flashing,” he wrote recruiters in an email, which was leaked to news media. “If we were a company, we would still be in the black, we would still be making a profit, but our profit margins and our available capital, those numbers are trending down right now.”

Thomas, who commands the Air Force Recruiting Service, rattled off a number of worrisome metrics, saying “our qualified and waiting list is about half of what it has been historically, lead conversions are down, propensity has dipped, unemployment is down, our public engagement and time in schools is at an all-time low, and we’ve had two years of limited recruiter training opportunities.”

He has likened the lagging waiting list to a corporate ledger with diminishing profit margins.

It was easier to get the attention of prospective airmen when recruiters could meet with them on school campuses, but COVID-19 slammed the door shut on that, forcing them to use email, social media, the phone and Zoom.

But things are changing as the virus has tapered off across the country and people are trying to return to a pre-pandemic normal.

“We’re finally at a point right now where we’re getting in front of an audience,” said Master Sgt. Matthew London. “So the challenges that we had are kind of now in the rearview mirror.”

He leads a team of eight recruiters in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Guam who sign up special warfare candidates for such jobs as combat control, pararescue, special reconnaissance and Tactical Air Control Party specialists who call in air strikes.

The U.S. Air Force has 1,920 recruiters in 1,200 offices across the nation, as well as in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. The service has met its recruiting goals for active duty airmen for 23 years and in 2021 announced it had also done so for the Reserve and guard components, a rarity.

So far, it has managed to stay on track for the 2022 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But as the pandemic eases, recruiters now must contend with high demand for labor elsewhere in the economy and its pool of qualified applicants is about half what it should be.

The recruiting service’s goal for active-duty airmen this fiscal year is 27,452, while it hopes to sign up 9,199 for the Air National Guard and 8,200 for the Air Force Reserve.

Thomas, on Tuesday reiterated some of the concerns he outlined in his memo but also expressed confidence his recruiters can overcome the difficulties.

“As many of you know, this year is shaping up to be the toughest recruiting year we’ve had since 1999,” he told the Blue Suit winners. “The battle for talent is fierce right now, whether it’s Google, Amazon, Target, you name whatever enterprise, people are looking for talent and you are engaged in not only that battle for talent — in the short term every day — but you’re engaged in that battle for national defense.

Tech. Sgt. Dustin Kincaid won his second consecutive Blue Suit award after sending 79 recruits straight to basic training and signing up another 82 under the delayed enlistment program, or DEP. The year before, he sent 78 to basic training and 101 to DEP. Those numbers are well the usual 30 to 40 his recruiting squadron in Georgia had been sending to the Air Force.

Kinkaid, 30, clicked off the usual issues recruiters have faced — not being able to get into schools, fewer opportunities to reach recruits and especially touch base with their “influencers,” parents and other role models who can persuade youth to join up.

So what’s his secret?

“Honestly, I just take every applicant and treat them like I would want to be treated,” he said, and he shares his own experiences in selling the Air Force to prospective candidates.

“I’ve just provided them examples of what I’ve been able to do, what others have been able to do that I’ve seen in their careers,” said Kinkaid, who grew up in Asbury, W.Va., and figured he’d work in a coal mine after graduating from high school because that’s what a lot of people there did.

“If they’re looking for, like, ‘Hey! My dream is to own a house,’ I’ll provide an opportunity where I was able to buy my first house when I was in Florida. ‘Hey, is my family going to be taken care of?’ I’ll show them how my wife and my child had health care and they’re able to go to the doctor.”

Other recruiters honored at Tuesday’s ceremony included Master Sgt. Roberto Franco of Santa Fe, N.M. He dealt with the basic problem caused by the pandemic — not being able to personally interact with military-age youths, including things as simple as dropping by high schools or greeting them in the mall.

Increased civilian pay for health professionals hurt his refforts to reach out to hospitals, clinics and health facilities to search for recruits with medical backgrounds.

“Patience, Patience, Patience,” Franco, 37, said in a testimonial the Air Force provided. “The hard work you do every day is impactful, though not always immediate. You’re changing lives.”

Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Absher, 42, of Loveland, Colo., said she brought in 52 recruits last year, above the typical mark of 40 or so, and approaches them much the same way as Kinkaid.

“My secret is trying to figure out what people’s life is, what do they want to do in life and what do they want to accomplish,” she said. “It does work because I go more on the personal level.”

Absher was in basic training at Joint Base San Antonio seven years ago this month. She was already a mother, with two children, and recalled wanting to serve in the military sooner but simply couldn’t make it happen. Life kept getting in the way.

Not anymore.

These days, Absher has four children and keeps tabs on the families of those who have been sent off to basic training — “talking with spouses, going to the children’s activities. And the Air Force, we’re like a huge family,” Absher said. “We take care of each other.”

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