Tattoos, Loan Repayments, and More: Air Force Attacks Recruiting Barriers

Air Force recruiting gutted out a “dead-stick” landing to finish fiscal 2022 and leaders are girding for a still more challenging 2023. 

Short-term challenges like low unemployment and the lingering effects of the COVID-induced pause to in-person recruiting can’t be helped. But the bigger problem facing the Air Force and the other military services are long-term recruiting trends. Fewer and fewer young Americans are even eligible to serve, with drug use, obesity, and criminal records a growing blot on the population. And now even those who are eligible are growing less and less likely to consider it.  

Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin told Air & Space Forces Magazine that top leaders are working the problem. Leaders late last year “put a team together to ensure that we are evaluating all of the things that we do to make sure we’re not unintentionally placing barriers [in front of] Americans who might want to join our formation,” Allvin said.

The Barriers to Service Cross-Functional Team launched then. Now, with the Air Force facing a potential 10 percent recruiting shortfall in the Active-duty component–and even more in the Guard and Reserve–Allvin is leading the team, pushing for faster results. 

“The numbers weren’t recovering as fast as we’d like,” Allvin said. “This team had already been formed, but I was called in to sort of help accelerate it.” 

Now dubbed a Tiger Team, it consists of a “core” group of 10 to 15 leaders supported by almost 400 others, enabling leaders to tackle multiple efforts at once. 

“We have Space Force representation, Air Force representation, military staff here on the Air Staff, the civilian staff as well, the major commands, of course [Air Education and Training Command] and the 2nd Air Force and the Air Force Recruiting Service,” Allvin said. 

What barriers the team chooses to tackle are largely driven by suggestions from recruiters and data showing which problems affect the biggest swathes of recruits. Many of the proposed solutions didn’t actually come from the Tiger Team, he noted. 

“They were making their way through the process,” Allvin said. The team chose some to accelerate “and see if we can’t get them done in days and weeks.” 

Two such solutions have already been put into place, and more are coming. 


The Air Force announced in early March new tattoo policies permitting one tattoo of no more than an inch per hand, in addition to the previously allowed “ring” tattoos, and one tattoo of no more than one inch on the neck. 

The Air Force Recruiting Service’s data showed that tattoos were among the top reasons potential recruits get turned away: roughly 1,300 per year, Allvin said. Meanwhile, the Navy—and even the Space Force—had different, more lenient policies. 

The Air Force had previously made it easier for recruiting commanders to approve waivers for hand tattoos, with AFRS commander Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr. saying he had personally approved dozens based on pictures sent to his phone. Now the need for such waivers is gone, Thomas confirmed at the AFA Warfare Symposium. 

“America is changing,” Thomas said. “And those applicants coming to us are changing. We’ve got to be able to adapt. We were literally turning away highly qualified applicants because of a small tattoo that was between their fingers and we were saying, ‘I wish we could make you an American Airman. But why don’t you walk next door to United States Navy, and they’ll be happy to enlist you.’” 

Recruiting Incentives 

Just a few days after the tattoo policy change, the Air Force announced it was bringing back the Enlisted College Loan Repayment Program, which helps enlisted recruits pay back student debt up to $65,000 after an absence of nearly a decade.  

“We get a twofer out of it,” Allvin said. “We get to attract Americans, we can offer an incentive and have them really come into our formation and frankly, if they’ve got some level of college for which they have debt, that means we get a pretty well-educated cohort.” 

The Air Force is also expanding the career fields in which incoming qualified recruits can receive enlistment bonuses. The new list will be released soon, An Air Force spokeswoman said. 

To fund the two programs, the Air Force reprogrammed $15 million for the loan repayments and $25 million for the enlistment bonuses. 

More Coming 

Still other changes are in the works, Allvin said.  

The Office of the Secretary of Defense, alongside the services, is looking to revive an accelerated pathway to naturalization for immigrants at Basic Military Training. 

“We have people who are here, who aren’t citizens yet but are willing to serve and die for this country,” Allvin said. “So the idea of being able to accelerate the naturalization process, the goal will be by the time they will complete [BMT] that they can become fully naturalized.” 

That broader Pentagon effort is still ongoing, but the Department of the Air Force, alongside other departments, have signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to start the process and are working on the logistical and procedural hurdles to make it happen. 

Other efforts include providing more flexibility on the documents recruits need to make it through the enlistment process, Allvin said. 

“When I came in forever ago, it made sense that there was a large percentage of our force that would require driver’s licenses for the things that we would do,” Allvin said. “It would almost be an assumption. So if you don’t have a driver’s license for these things, then we really can’t take you in the service. Which was OK when just about everybody, or a large percentage, had driver’s licenses. But these days because of the lack of a demand for it, with better public transportation or the advent of other capabilities that weren’t available before. Plus, there’s some access issues. There may be folks who are in the inner city who can use public transportation or don’t have the means or the access—it doesn’t mean they don’t want to serve the country.” 

Those longer-term issues can be complicated, Allvin said, by different requirements across different states or bureaucratic hurdles—one of the issues that Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has highlighted as part of his “Accelerate Change or Lose” action orders. And so the Tiger Team will stay in place “for the next several months at least,” Allvin said. 

“it’s very clear, it’s very tangible,” Allvin said. “Every week that we don’t do one of these things, you can count the number of Americans that are coming in that we’re having to turn away.”