Air Force meets 2022 recruiting goal, but faces myriad short and long-term challenges

The Air Force barely met its 2022 recruiting goal for the active duty force, and had to use unusual measures to pull it off. The reserve components face bigger ...

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In 2022, recruiting has been a very tough business for all the military services, and the Department of the Air Force is no exception. It met its goals for the active duty force this fiscal year, but it had to pull out all the stops to do so. The Air National Guard and Reserve, meanwhile, are thousands of troops short, and officials say 2023 looks to be at least as difficult as this year was.

Getting to the 2022 active duty recruiting goals for the active duty Air and Space Forces wasn’t easy: For the first time in a decade, the Air Force had to sweeten its recruiting bonuses two separate times midway through the year, including a $14 million infusion into the fund that pays for bonuses in April and another $7 million dollar addition in July. The Air Force also had to draw heavily from its “delayed entry” pool, made up of recruits who’d already signed contracts but weren’t scheduled to enter service until next year.

Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas, the commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, said this year was the toughest one the Air Force has had to contend with since 1999.

“Using Air Force lexicon, I would say we’re doing a dead stick landing as we come into the end of fiscal 22, and we’re going to need to turn around on the first of October and do an afterburner takeoff,” he told reporters at the Air and Space Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md. “We’re going to be starting fiscal 23 behind by about 5,000 recruits on the active duty side alone. We usually start with a pool of 25-to-27% [of our goal for the year]. That bank is down to about 10%, so we’re going to be starting 2023 In a tougher position than we started 2022.”

So why was 2022 so difficult?

There are a lot of factors in the mix. When they talk about recruiting challenges, military officials routinely point to issues like a declining number of young Americans who are qualified to serve, and within that pool, a further declining share of prospective recruits who are inclined toward military service — or who just don’t know much about the military at all.

But those aren’t new issues. What is new, Thomas said, is an unusually tight job market and the aftereffects of COVID-19. The pandemic, he said, threw the machinery of the military recruiting system severely off-kilter, and some of the consequences didn’t fully come to light until midway through this year.

“The battle for talent has been intense — it’s been Google, it’s been Starbucks, it’s been American enterprises looking for good recruits,” he said. “But the second biggest factor in the short term has been the aggregate effects of two years of COVID. We realized that [our recruiting] momentum had begun to suddenly slow, and that’s largely attributed to the effects of our recruiters not being in schools or public spaces for two years. We lost two classes of high school students. And on top of that, 70% of our recruiters are all new since COVID. So those key functions — the soft skills, selling the Air Force, the way of life, the value proposition — the reps and sets our recruiters got were very, very limited. So we’ve sent recruiting and training teams out across the country to coach and mentor these recruiters, and say, ‘Okay team, we’ve got to get back in the game.’ And it’s making a difference.”

Thomas said there were other factors too — what he calls “process” changes that made recruiters’ jobs more complicated over the past couple of years.

One example is the transition to DoD’s new electronic health record, MHS Genesis. He says over the long term, the new EHR will deliver huge benefits to the Air Force, but for now, the migration is requiring recruiters to spend time on new processes for ingesting new recruits’ private sector health records into the DoD system. Those procedures, for now, are setting new accessions back by about 20 days each.

The reasons behind the reserve component’s failure to meet their goals this year are almost identical to the challenges the active components faced, but they’re compounded by the exact same factors.

In normal times, the reserve components can expect about 70% of their new members to be airmen who’ve just left the active duty Air Force. But the tight labor market has caused fewer active duty airmen to stick around for reserve service.

Chief Master Sergeant Timothy White, the senior enlisted leader for Air Force Reserve Command, said instead of the usual 70% figure, the ratio is now down to about 50% in some cases. And making up for the loss of airmen with prior service puts even more demand on the constricted pipeline for new recruits.

“We still need to meet our end strength and meet our numbers, but we have to change our recruiting models,” he said. “We just have to face the fact that we’re not going to get those bodies from the active component like we we’ve been used to. We’ll have to use new tools, and we’ll have to adjust our budgets for things like schoolhouses in ways that we never really had to in the past.”

While the labor market is tight in general, the Air Force’s ability to retain uniformed personnel still varies quite a bit by career field. That’s true across both the active and reserve components, said Lt. Gen. John Healy, the chief of the Air Force Reserve.

“It is a fact that there’s going to be shortage of pilots worldwide for the next 15 to 20 years,” said Healy, who became a commercial airline pilot when he first left the active duty Air Force and joined the reserve. “I was looking to continue to serve, but I was also looking for a degree of security in case furloughs happened. Is that security blanket needed anymore if the airlines aren’t going to stop hiring for the next 20 years? I hate to say it, but there’s a false degree of security that’s being provided by the need for, in this case, pilots within the civilian community. It’s drawing people right out of active duty — they’re seeing more exit, and we’re just not capturing the ones that we typically would have captured on the way out.”

Still, Thomas thinks there’s reason for optimism, especially when it comes to the short-term challenges. After all, the military has weathered tight labor markets before, and the recruiting apparatus is getting itself back on track after the distortions COVID caused.

The Air Force is also taking several steps to deal with some of the longer-term challenges. For example, it’s commissioned the RAND Corporation to help figure out how to optimize its recruiting strategies, looking at everything from the geographic regions the service is targeting to specific recruiting approaches.

But Thomas said it’s already clear to him that the Air Force can’t get the talent it needs by relying solely on people whose full time job is recruiting. So the service is going to need to lean more heavily on initiatives like the Recruiter Assistance Program, where brand new servicemembers return to their communities to talk to their friends about the Air Force.

“It can’t be just the 1,500 people in the Air Force Recruiting Service that’s responsible for bringing the entire next generation of airmen and guardians; we’ve got to take a more whole-of-service approach to how we connect with our communities,” he said. “It’s got to be bringing people onto our bases in ways we haven’t done in years. We used to have very aggressive base tour programs. We brought people to flight lines, took them on aircraft, showed them where airmen lived. We had a speaker’s bureau, where we sent people out to schools and Lions Clubs and community events, but we took personnel cuts, so we cut down our community relations program and stopped doing a lot of those things. So I’m asking our wing commanders to help us, because the very best recruiting assets we have is our people and our bases. We can’t just depend on our recruiters to be able to connect with America. Our Air Force has to connect with America, and our Space Force has to connect with America.”


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