Active-duty accessions dropped by 7,000 after COVID hit — and closed schools could make next year even harder

The Air Force is on track to access as many as 7,000 fewer active-duty airmen in fiscal 2020 than it did last year, after the coronavirus upended the Air Force’s personnel plans.

The Air Force accessed 34,660 active-duty officer and enlisted airmen in fiscal 2019, which was the most since the Vietnam War era. This year, the Air Force Recruiting Service said, the Air Force has a recruiting goal of 27,611 active-duty airmen, including 26,373 active-duty enlisted. It has exceeded that goal.

Recruiting Service spokeswoman Leslie Brown said Monday that the Air Force revised its recruitment goals after the pandemic hit. The service’s retention rate was much higher than expected, she said, and basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas was sharply curtailed to meet social distancing guidelines, prompting the goal revisions.

The significant drop in recruiting goals is just one way the Air Force adjusted to deal with the challenges of recruiting new airmen in the COVID-19 era. Since the pandemic began and shuttered schools nationwide, the Recruiting Service has made several changes to shift its operations online.

It’s been tough going, but it’s largely worked so far, Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, AFRS commander, told reporters in a roundtable at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space, Cyber conference Monday.

But if the pandemic stretches throughout much of this school year and schools remain closed, Thomas said, things are going to get a lot harder.

The Air National Guard is also going to fall short of its authorized levels in 2020 due to its extended coronavirus response, Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh said at another roundtable Monday — though not as badly as the Guard initially feared. In June, former ANG Director Lt. Gen. Scott Rice said the Guard’s lengthy response was hurting retention, and that it might finish the year about 1,000 airmen short of its authorized manning level of 107,700.

On Monday, Loh said that the Air National Guard will finish the year at about 107,200. That’s less than originally intended, but still 100 more guardsmen than last year, he said.

The pandemic hit at “probably the worst time you could imagine,” Loh said — in March, around the time spring break happens. Typically, Loh said, high school students start thinking about their future careers and plans to pay for college after spring break.

But when Air National Guard recruiters couldn’t return to high schools to meet with those students, Loh said, they had to quickly shift gears to a virtual recruiting platform.

“We’ll probably still fall short, but it could have been way, way worse,” Loh said.

Thomas said the Air Force has met its recruiting goals for fiscal 2020, and with its reserve of “qualified and waiting” recruits that are awaiting their turn to enlist, is on track to meet its goals for the first quarter of fiscal 2021.

But beyond that, the outlook is less clear.

“If COVID continues the way it has, it will be increasingly difficult … if we’re not able to get into the public spaces,” Thomas said. “After we go through our reserve ‘qualified and waiting’ [recruits], the trend is in the wrong direction. I’m confident that we’re going to be able to meet our goals in ’21 with qualified recruits, but it’s going to be harder.”

Tech. Sgt. Rashawn Duffy, 37th Training Wing Detachment 5 military training instructor, presents a coin to an airman during the basic military training coining ceremony outside of Erwin Manor at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, May 15. Air Education and Training Command is preparing to wind down BMT operations at Keesler. (Kemberly Groue/Air Force)

The Air Force has now shifted the lion’s share — almost 80 percent — of its recruitment marketing budget to various forms of online and digital engagement, Thomas said.

But there’s only so much that virtual recruiting can accomplish. Thomas said a noncommissioned officer doing face-to-face recruiting can produce one new recruit for every eight leads he pursues in person.

When recruiting digitally, however, that leads-to-recruit ratio falls to 30 to 1, Thomas said.

“It becomes more difficult, more labor-intensive, more expensive,” Thomas said. “We’re going to have to really put a lot of effort and funding into our digital marketing efforts this next year.”

But the public events the Air Force has typically used to get leads on potential new recruits — such as air shows and sporting events — also aren’t happening, for the most part. The Indianapolis 500 in August, which had cars sponsored by both the Air Force and Space Force, was run last month without any of the 300,000 spectators it usually has.

“Zero recruiters, zero activations, as we call it,” Thomas said. “None of those semi trucks where you can go in and get the virtual experience of what it’s like to be special ops or a helicopter pilot or an F-22 pilot. Not able to do any of those things. None of those personal experiences.”

So, Thomas said, Air Force recruiting has had to rely more on national marketing leads — and be smart about how it manages the leads it does get.

The Air Force funnels its national leads into a lead refinement center in San Antonio, Texas, which is primarily staffed by retired active-duty recruiters, Thomas said. The retired recruiters at that center then call those leads to make sure they’re actually interested, and then pass those leads on to the appropriate recruiting squadron or group in the field, he said.

AFRS is also looking for ways to engage students online, Thomas said, such as by virtual school visits and other virtual forums to reach out to potential recruits.

Lt. Col. Annie Driscoll, commander of the Recruiting Service’s Detachment 1, said the Air Force had to rethink its annual Aim High Flight Academy program to make it work during the pandemic. Typically, that program allows students who are thinking about a career in the Air Force to spend three weeks there in person, learning about flight and taking their first steps to becoming a pilot.

Driscoll’s team was able to come up with a way to host the academy virtually over seven weeks for 28 students. Each week, the students spent a few hours with mentors from across the Air Force and learned about everything from public speaking to the parts of an aircraft, she said.

After those students start school, Driscoll said, they will be paired with a rated officer from the Air Force, who will stay with them for the entire year. Those students will also still get the opportunity to practice flying throughout the year, she said.

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