For the first time in more than five years, the Air Force Recruiting Service is on target to meet its goals for the entire department, the unit’s commander said Sept. 22. At the same time, trends indicate a challenging future for the Air and Space Forces as they go after the next generation of Airmen and Guardians.
With just a few days left in fiscal year 2021, the Active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and Space Force were on the verge of hitting their total goal of 42,000 additions, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., head of AFRS, told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.
For the regular Air Force, this is nothing new—the Active-duty component has met its recruiting goals every year since 1999, Thomas said. But the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard have had less success in recent history. In particular, the Air Force Reserve missed its goal in each of the past five years, and the challenging circumstances of the past year made reaching its goal even more impressive.
“The reason why, for five years, it’s been hard to make goal, is it is a very complex orchestration of how we gain people in the Air Force,” Lt. Gen. Richard W. Scobee, chief of the Air Force Reserve, told reporters in a different roundtable. “So if less people are getting out of the Active component, it’s harder for us to make our numbers.”
With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, retention in the Active-duty ranks has been high, but Scobee credited the stability of the Reserve and its ability to work through the pandemic as key.
“Have to say, I’m pretty excited about making end strength for the first time in my tenure,” Scobee said.
The success, however, may be hard to continue long term. Thomas cited a report from Joint Advertising Marketing Research & Studies, or JAMRS, that found that just 11 percent of American youth reported a desire to serve in the military, down from 13 percent. And that decline is not an anomaly, Thomas said.
“The long-term trends are concerning. And the reason is America’s youth are becoming ever more disconnected from the military,” said Thomas. “I can go into all the reasons why … smaller military, bigger population, less moms, dads, aunts, and uncles, people who serve people, people they know. So we have to be really serious about playing the long game.”
To that end, Thomas said, AFRS is working to understand Gen Z—young people born between 1997 and 2012—as the main generation that will be joining the Air Force and Space Force for years to come. And in doing so, they’ve already drawn some conclusions.
“This is a group of folks that, there’s things that motivate them differently than the prior generations,” Thomas said, adding that their guiding ethos is, “I want my work life and the things I do to be able to line up with what I believe personally, my personal life. So I need my nine to five to be … more closely aligned with my five to nine.”
As a result, Thomas said, the service’s advertising focus has shifted. There are still images and videos of kinetic attacks and fighter jets. But there’s also a new message: “Don’t just make your mark, make many. Come make a difference.”
That big-picture, philosophical approach also has to be balanced by practical concerns. Because fewer young people have regular contact with the military, their questions are often basic, said Barry Dickey, director of marketing for AFRS.
“Can I have a dog? Can we date? … We got a whole section on our website dedicated to “Ask an Airman,” Dickey said. And what we’ve discovered is that Generation Z doesn’t want any fluff. They want to hear it straight from an Airman.”
That strategy can lead to some less-than-flattering answers, Thomas and Dickey admitted. But the philosophy is that long term, transparency on issues will help with both recruiting and retention.
“[Ask an Airmen] will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Dickey said. “And we put that out there because we want to be truthful in all of our messaging. We know that that resonates with the audience that we’re after.”
Some of the issues are more trivial—it can be cold on the flightline, Dickey acknowledged with a laugh—but others are more serious. Questions about sexual harassment and assault, as well as racial and ethnic discrimination in the ranks, are hard topics that have left an impact, especially in recent years when protests against racial inequality and reports of high sexual assault rates have received significant attention.
“The JAMRS study definitely indicated sexual assault, racial disparity, … are areas that cause us concern,” Thomas said.
There’s only so much the Air Force can do about that, given the public and high-profile nature of these issues in the ranks.
“The challenges that we have as a Department of Defense is that the speed of information can be pretty powerful,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said in a separate roundtable. “And so for every good story that we have on the military, on the greatness that we provide all Americans, there’s 15 of the articles that come out that say otherwise, that there are sexual assaults occurring, that we are not taking care of Airmen and families when it comes to domestic violence.”
In the end, though, Thomas expressed optimism that transparency will work as a long-term strategy, both for the overall force and for AFRS.
“We’re very honest and very transparent about where some of our problems are and our barriers are. … There can be a short-term, negative impact on recruiting,” Thomas said. “In the long term, though … we do believe that the long game here is, we expose our problems. We deal with them, and we move on, and we get better for it. And then in the long game, our recruiting is going to benefit from the transparent approach that we are taking.”