U.S. Air Force recruiters using new tools, new thinking to meet targets in difficult environment

As the head of recruiting for the Air and Space Forces, Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas is in a job that requires him to be pragmatic and creative and occasionally willing to test boundaries in the quest to meet never slacking personnel demands of the two services.

That, more than anything, explains why Thomas is personally reviewing pictures of “hand tattoos” to decide if the recruit qualities under modified standards that previously rejected any recruit with tattoos extending past his or her wrist.

As Thomas explained Sept. 21 during a session with reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference, the fact that he is rendering a thumbs up or down verdict on a thumb tattoo (or a small tattoo on any other part of the hand) signifies a new and necessary way of thinking and approaches for attracting men and women to the Air and Space Forces. The reason is clear – the Air Force’s old, and more restrictive tattoo policy, led to the service losing 1,000 or more recruits each year to the Navy and other services that had different standards.

It’s a small but telling example of how Air and Space Force recruiting is evolving. There are other signs as well, such as a re-thinking how to evaluate and allow people with certain medical conditions and others whose backgrounds might have led to instant rejection. No longer.

“We’ve learned a lot this year,” Thomas said. “Crisis is a powerful influence in sharpening the mind and sharpening how you do things and how you think about things.

“Over the past year we have re-engineered how we do recruiter training; 70% of our recruiters are new since COVID. We’ve reworked marketing; our incentive program, the bonuses; goaling, how we goal our recruiters to keep them motivated to hit the targets we need to hit,” he said.

Even in more prosperous times, recruiting is hard work. But with the job market contracting and expected to tighten even more this year, and with people’s choices for careers and where they work expanding, convincing young people to enlist demands new ideas and approaches, Thomas said.

“As we’ve gone through one of the most difficult recruiting years we’ve had since, at least 1999 … we’ve got to be out there with the American people, we’ve got to be inspiring people for military service and that challenge has gotten increasingly difficult over the past few years,” he said.

He is testing new ideas and also enlisting highly regarded experts at the RAND Corp. to study in a holistic way the recruiting effort and suggest changes.

Yet despite the difficult trends and conditions, Thomas said that the active duty recruiting goal for the year, which ends on September 30, has been met. Targets for the Reserve and Guard, however, fell short.

“It was never a given that we would meet our (active duty) recruiting goal. Our recruiters have gone the extra mile and pulled out all the stops,” he said.

“Using Air Force lexicon, I’d say we’re doing a ‘dead-stick landing’ as we come into the end of fiscal year ’22, and we’re going to have to turn around on Oct. 1 and the start of the new fiscal year and do an after-burner takeoff,” Thomas said. “We’re going to start the new fiscal year behind by 5,000 recruits on the active-duty side alone.”

The 2022 results weren’t achieved without serious effort and extra dollars. For the first time in a decade, the Air Force allocated additional funding twice in the same fiscal year to finance enlistment bonuses. With COVID on the decline, recruiters were back in schools and at other “in person” events. Recruiters are using social media, especially YouTube to trigger interest and introduce people to the service at a time when public awareness – and direct connections – to the military are at all-time lows.

At the same time, demands beyond numerical targets are increasing. In his keynote address Monday to the AFA conference, Department of the Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall noted the recruiting service’s impressive results in a difficult time.

“While recruiting has become a challenge across the entire DoD, the Air Force is generally in much better shape than other services and the Space Force is easily meeting its goals,” Kendall said.

But moments later, he added this: “We’ve challenged our recruiters to increase the diversity of our applicant pool. We can’t just say we want the best and brightest, we need to be focused on our investments and outreach to the best and brightest from all of America.”

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