GONE FISHIN' National Guard recruiters who hang such a sign on their office doors during the duty day probably are not playing hooky by the old mill stream. It’s a better bet that they are fishing for new recruits for the Army and Air National Guard.
That’s what recruiters do. Sometimes they catch their limit. Often they go home empty-handed. But their ability to coax nibbles into bites and reel in the ones that are legal have much to do with the strength of Guard forces.
This fishing analogy is hardly new to the recruiting game. “On a commercial boat, they hang fishing lines off the back,” says Maj. Rob Au Buchon the Arizona Army Guard’s recruiting battalion commander. “Only so many fishermen can pull so many fish out of the ocean. There is no such thing as a net for us, which would be considered the draft. So we have to go out and find young men and women, as fishermen.”
And it requires catching a whole lot of fish every year. Recruiting and retention leaders explain that, on average, the Army Guard has to assess some 45,000 new soldiers to reach its end strength of about 335,000 and the Air Guard needs to enlist between 10,000 and 11,500 new airmen to meet its end strength of about 106,600.
Retention goes hand in hand with recruiting. “The more people we’re able to retain, the fewer people we have to recruit. So we back into the recruiting number by looking at what we expect from retention,” says Maj. Shaun Greenwood, the executive officer of the Massachusetts Army Guard’s recruiting and retention battalion.
The Bay State’s Army Guard recruiters this year have a mission to haul in 800 people and to, hopefully, support efforts to retain 900 citizen-soldiers and achieve an end-strength of 6,225, Greenwood says.
The Massachusetts Air Guard averages be-tween a 90 and 92% retention rate from year to year, according to Chief Master Sgt. Michael Morris Jr., the Air Guard’s recruiting and retention career-field manager. “That helps with recruiting success in that it impacts the number of people who we have to recruit or replace to meet our overall end strength.”
The Air Guard was among the components to “make mission” in 2018 by achieving 101% end strength. All three Army components came up short, which has triggered some significant introspection among leaders and those involved with recruiting.
Recruiting is a much more complex enterprise than it once was. Long gone are the eras when British Navy “press gangs” abducted men to crew the empire’s warships or when most males age 16 to 60 were required to serve in colonial militia companies.
No one in this county has been involuntarily “recruited” since conscription ended in 1973 when the all-volunteer force was born. A combination of individual recruiters pursuing dozens of leads in hopes of landing a few keepers and mass marketing that targets young people and, now, their parents is how America’s military services now go fishing.
Trouble is, the fishing grounds are getting smaller because fewer people feel the need or are even eligible to serve for multiple reasons.
There is little perception today of a national emergency and absolutely no requirement to join. A strong economy means fewer people need the military for job. In addition, criminal records, medical issues, weight problems and poor academics dis-qualify many people.
And while patriotism is not dead, many recruiters say the propensity to serve does not seem to be strong among many young people.“
The patriotic capital that we were able to use in the early 2000s doesn’t exist as largely as it did before,” observed Au Bu-chon. “We don’t have young men and women running in to join as we did post-9/11. They’re just not there.”
“We don't have young men and women running in to join as we did post-9/11."
—Maj. Rob Au Buchon, the Arizona Army Guard's recruiting battalion commander
THE DECLINE in the desire to serve was almost inevitable. A similar drop off occurred after previous national calls to arms — including in the wake of both world wars. The fervor spikes but eventually subsides, says Guard historian Bill Boehm.
Today, young people between 17 to 21 years old, the group recruiters target most, have no personal recollec-tion of 9/11. Add the other factors and you have a budding crisis as the military retools for great power competition while still battling insurgencies across the Middle East. “
We’re facing an epidemic in the recruiting environment across the nation. It’s not just us. It’s all services,” says Col. Robert Kuster II, the Army Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Division chief.
Recent Defense Department surveys provide the metrics. Eighty-seven percent of youth say they would “definitely not” or “probably not” serve in the military. Fewer than three out of 10 of America’s 20.6 million people aged 17 to 21 are even eligible with-out a waiver. This leaves only about 2% (412,000) who are eligible, inclined to serve and possess the academic quality to per-form the military’s increasingly technical jobs.
These are the fish recruiters in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard, their reserves, and the Army and Air National Guard are all after. But military recruiters are not the only ones out there fishing. “
We’ve been hovering below 4% [unemployment] for nearly a year here in Phoenix, and it’s a chilling effect when young men and women are being offered jobs out of high school to run heavy equipment starting at $50,000 and $60,000, when truck driving companies are offering bonuses to high school students,” Au Buchon says.
This small pool of quality recruits reflects the widening military-civilian divide, Anthony Kurta, the Pentagon’s top personnel official, told the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service in May.“
This disconnect is characterized by misperceptions, a lack of knowledge and an inability to identify with those who serve,” he said. “It threatens our ability to recruit the number of quality youth with the needed skill sets to maintain our ad-vantage over any near-peer competitor.”
Kurta said a shrinking military foot-print, a declining veteran population and “uninformed and often misguided” mes-sages from organizations or media on the risks of military service exacerbates the divide. “Combined, these factors have led to a youth market which is less interested in the military and does not appreciate the social worth or intrinsically motivating el-ements of military service,” he said.
Even basic knowledge of the military is lacking, with only 27% of youth able to name all five services. A majority of youth believe that those who serve and then separate will have some form of psychological or emotional issues, difficulty readjusting to every-day life, or some form of physical injury, Kurta said.
Americans overall view the military as import-ant, effective and well run, he said. They see military leaders as courageous and professional. And they believe the military contributes to society. “Yet, this general support has not translated into increased service by youth or support for enlistments by their influencers,” Kurta said. “In fact, a significant pro-portion of our nation believe joining the military is a good choice for someone else.”
“The recruiting machine has been rebuilt and is humming at this time."
—Col. Robert Kuster II, the Army Guard's Recruiting and Retention Division chief
THE ARMY AND AIR GUARD are not cutting bait in the face of all this. Instead, they are putting addi-tional resources into recruiting, exploring new marketing approaches and using social media to reach a target audience that is moving away from traditional media. They are also engaging “influencers,” especially parents.
The basic lure remains the same: the opportunity to serve both country and community, being part of something larg-er than yourself, state and federal educational benefits, travel, and technical training. Signing bonuses of $20,000 for some career fields help, Guard recruiters say, along with income for monthly drills and annual training, and low-cost health care.
Educational benefits vary from state to state. Massachusetts, for example, covers 100% of tuition and fees at some 20 state institutions, recruiters report. Arizona, on the other hand, offers no in-state tuition assistance. The legislature passed the necessary legislation but has yet to appropriate the funds, Au Buchon says.
Opinion varies on whether the amount of state educational benefits actually affects recruiting.
Morris, the Air Guard recruiting and retention career-field manager, says some states that offer 100% tuition assistance do not have 100% end strength, while other states that do not offer as much or don’t offer anything still have a high personnel strength.
Other recruiters disagree, saying educational benefits catch the eye of young people who want to avoid the student loan debt many of their peers are accumulating.
But military service is about more than pay and benefits, recruiters insist. The desire to serve must be paramount if people are going to make a multiyear commitment and undergo basic and advanced training and perhaps endure long days on fire lines in America or overseas.“
There are so many benefits,” Au Buchon acknowledges. “But we tell young men and women that at the end of the day the reason they should join [the] Guard is to serve. And if you don’t have that inner desire to serve, you will not get through the difficult times.”
The Air Guard is relying heavily on multimedia marketing and special events targeting young people and their parents — to rein-force its small force of about 350 recruiters.
The Atlanta marketing agency Jacob’s Eye has restored public awareness of the Air Guard from about 2% to what Morris calls “reasonable levels” since receiving a three-year, $100 million con-tract in 2017.
That national awareness “historically hovered between 25% and 30%,” he says. “At one point we were without a [marketing] contract for a good 18 months. It is continuing to grow now that [Jacob’s Eye is] on the team and pushing na-tional and local marketing programs out there.”
Jacob’s Eye developed the recent Air Guard radio-advertising blitz in media markets nationwide. One spot features a mother excitedly telling an-other how her son is now in college thanks to “the ANG.” It’s intended to allay the concerns of the many parents today who know little about the military. According to Kurta, in 2017 only 15% of youth had parents who had served, down from 40% in 1995.
The overall campaign also includes ads on social media, including Instagram, Twitch and Twitter. A focus of the effort is recruiting maintainers. The Air Guard is short approximately 4,000. Jacob’s Eye developed posters touting the importance of maintainers. Each has the hashtag #makemetalfly.
The Air Guard has also raised its presence at public events. Recruits take trailers with video games, flight simulators and fitness equipment to airshows, state fairs and recreational events, such as Tough Mudder competition.
Jacob’s Eye and the Air Guard have also created events. One was New York Air National Guard Day on May 17 at New York City’s Penn Station, the busiest train station in the Western Hemisphere. Smiling Air Guardsmen were there that day to greet some of the station’s 600,000 daily commuters.
Those involved billed the event the “Penn Station Takeover.” It actually began weeks before when Jacob’s Eye placed more than 200 pieces of print and digital advertising all over the station to increase Air Guard awareness. The ads stayed in place all spring.
“The increasing national awareness and national events schedule ... have generated around 8,000 leads this year,” Morris says.
“The increasing national awareness and national events schedule ... have generated around 8,000 leads this year."
—Chief Master Sgt. Michael Morris Jr., the Air Guard recruiting and retention career-field manager
THE ARMY GUARD, which also utilizes traditional and digital advertising, has added 1,200 recruiters during the past two years, increasing its force to more than 4,000 by late May. “We were under resourced and we knew we needed more to get the job done,” Kuster says.
Meanwhile, the Army Guard on April 15 launched a “Hometown Soldiers” campaign intended to create awareness and generate more leads, its first multimedia campaign in more than six years. The ad buy included time during live-sports telecasts. It also included ads in theaters before the showing of Avengers: Endgame, Hellboy and Shazam!“
As of May 13, this campaign has generated more than 300,000 requests for information. More than 200,000 new users on our Na-tionalGuard.com is projected to yield over 250,000 leads,” the Recruiting and Retention Division reports.
“We’re on track to achieve over 4,000 more accessions this year than we did last year,” Kuster says. “The recruiting machine has been rebuilt and is humming at this time, and we have numerous initiatives poised for 2020 and 2021.”
Still to be determined is how the Army Guard will fit into a new Total Army marketing initiative expected to become operational next year. The Army Marketing and Research Group will become the Office of the Chief Army Enterprise on Aug. 1 and will move from Arlington, Virginia, to Chicago.
That office will “develop marketing expertise and talent within the Army to support the Regular Army, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve,” directed then-Army Secretary Mark Esper on May 30.
Chicago is the home of the Army’s new lead ad agency, DDB, which has been awarded a $4 billion contract to develop “a range of initiatives to build brand perception and drive leads for marketing and recruiting needs,” according to reports.
One branding change is already apparent. Gone is the Army Guard’s red, white and blue recruiting logo. The new one features a black shield with gold and white text that reads army national guard. The colors and text are a closer match to the Army recruit-ing logo.
Army Guard recruiters are less than thrilled about consolidating active, Guard and Reserve recruiting activities into a single, service-wide effort, as recommended by the National Commission on the Future of the Army in Janu-ary 2016. Many doubt that active and Reserve recruiters are familiar enough with the Guard’s state-federal mission to represent the force to recruits. “
To the maximum extent feasible, the Army should be managed as one Army,” the commission concluded. “Therefore, any effort to truly manage one Army must include aligning recruiting efforts for all three components.”
The commission said separate efforts were duplicative and costly. The panel cited the Active First program, conducted from 2007 to 2011, as an example of successful consolidated recruiting. During the program, which helped the Army increase its structure during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Army Guard recruiters offered active-component contracts to individuals who agreed to do a subsequent stint in the Guard.“
Active First assessed more than 4,900 individuals into the Army, thus illustrating that unity of effort is possible in the realm of recruiting, despite the different legal status of components,” the commission’s report stated, and “the Army should do more such efforts.”
The Army has also emphasized that recruiters alone cannot sup-ply all the soldiers the service needs. Everyone connected with the Army has to become a fisherman.
“We must adopt the mindset that everyone is a recruiter. We are all recruiters — officers, enlisted, generals, privates, active, retired, Guard, Reserve, you name it, even spouses and and moms. We need your help moving forward,” Esper said late last year. “Americans need to know their Army, but it’s on us to get out and meet them.”
The Guard has long had to operate in that manner.
SOME CONSOLIDATION of Army recruiting is already underway. Mandated by the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the three-year Universal Recruiter Pilot Program has paired Guard recruiting offices with U.S. Army Recruiting Command stations in 11 states.
“The intent is to allow someone to walk into a recruiting station and explain what they really want from their experience with the Army,” explains Army Recruiting Command spokesperson Kelli Bland. “If it’s to stay local or to travel the world or what kind of job they want, then we could direct them to which component would be best for them. That’s not really possible with separated recruiting efforts. But there are definitely some hurdles that need to be over-come in order to make that happen.”
Ain’t that the truth, claim Guard officials.
Although acknowledging that the program “provides Guard recruiters the option of enlisting candidates who need a full-time military option or who change their minds during the recruiting process,” get-ting credit for enlisting people into other components and educating the recruiters about the different components are primary concerns.
“It is possible, though, that no amount of training will overcome the inherent barriers to cross-component recruiting, particularly in our current competitive recruiting environment regarding end strength,” states the National Guard Bureau.
Au Buchon is blunt about how the program is playing in Phoenix.
“We have actually had no success with the pilot. There’s not a lot of incentive for my Guard recruiters to recruit for the active duty and vice versa, even though we’re both in the Army,” he says. “They are completely different animals when it comes to benefits and abilities and reasons that people will join,”
This underscores the importance of employing recruiters who thoroughly understand their services, who can build relationships and who are determined to put people in the force. It requires some long days and plenty of perseverance.
Just ask Massachusetts Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Harkins. It took the hard work of two recruiters to get her where she is today.
The first encouraged her to overcome her misgivings and join the Connecticut Army Guard in 2002, when she was 17, a high school se-nior and “wanted to play a part in keeping my country safe” after 9/11.
Six years later, Master Sgt. Kevin Eccleston, a Massachusetts Air Guard recruiter, literally rode to Harkins’s rescue when she transferred to the 102nd Intelligence Wing. Changing services is notoriously difficult, and the process took about six months, Harkins recalls. Eccleston drove to her northeastern Connecticut home more than once and worked the system so she could get into the 102nd’s Civil Engineering Squadron as a construction equipment operator.
Seventeen years after becoming a citizen-soldier, Harkins about to become an Air Guard first sergeant. She still gives Eccleston a lot of credit for kicking open the door.
“He didn’t give up. He did everything he could to help me and get me to where I wanted to be,” she says.
In other words, he was a good fisherman.