21st Century Recruiting

June 1, 2012
On April 30, the first of some 1,400 new Air Force-branded accounts sprang up on Facebook, each assigned to an Active Duty recruiter. This Air Force Recruiting Service initiative was one of the largest-ever corporate launches on the social media giant’s website.

The Air Force’s recruiting community is embracing new technology and communication methods, such as Facebook, Twitter, smartphone applications, and Quick Response Codes, to reach young Americans who spend much of their time nowadays in online social networks and virtual worlds. Doing so allows recruiters to share the career opportunities the service offers in an environment where younger people are comfortable.

Capt. Holly Fredericks speaks with an Army officer at an Air Force Reserve recruiting event. (USAF photo by Col. Bob Thompson)

“You either adapt and stay relevant and engaged with this audience, or you become less relevant and, frankly, miss out on some of America’s best and brightest,” said Brig. Gen. Balan R. Ayyar, AFRS commander.

Air Force recruiting, like US military recruiting overall, has been strong in recent years. USAF’s Active Duty force, the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve all meet their accessions goals, thanks in part to the sluggish economy. Recruiters have brought in quality young Americans to meet the requirements for new airmen capable of executing the Air Force’s challenging, technologically advanced missions such as flying sophisticated combat aircraft, operating state-of-the-art airborne and space-based information-gathering systems, or defending cyber networks. Of note, the Air Force Reserve “led the Department of Defense in meeting recruiting goals” in 2011 for the 11th straight year, Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, told a House oversight panel in March.

Yet, Air Force recruiting officials warn that as the economy strengthens, it will generally become more difficult for the service to compete with the private sector for the cream of the crop of high school graduates. Already Air Force recruiters have only “a small pool of American youth” to draw from as more young Americans rule out military service at an earlier age, said Ayyar in an interview.

Further, only about one-quarter of American youth actually qualify for military service. That’s due to moral and legal grounds (illegal drugs or criminal records can make an applicant ineligible), medical and physical issues, or poor performance on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the standardized test all applicants must take.

To best prepare for anticipated tougher recruiting times ahead and societal transformation, “every aspect of the Air Force Recruiting Service is transforming except our fundamental values,” said Ayyar. That includes “our processes, the technology that we use to support our accessions, [and] how we engage and where we engage” young Americans, he said. This also means evolving how AFRS develops and fosters “the profession of recruiting,” he noted.

While embracing technology will enhance the Air Force’s art of recruiting, the role of the individual recruiter—and activities such as visiting schools, attending career fairs, and building community ties—will always be central to the service’s recruiting efforts.

Friendly Competition

“I can’t see that ever going away,” said CMSgt. William J. Cavenaugh, AFRS command chief. “In the end, fundamentally, recruiting is a human endeavor and you have got to get face-to-face with someone.” In fact, nothing makes a stronger impression on a young American interested in joining the Air Force than “a good-looking recruiter in a blue uniform who is confident and knows what they are talking about,” he said.

AFRS, headquartered at JBSA-Randolph, Tex., is a component of Air Education and Training Command. It has some 2,600 employees, including about 1,200 recruiters who deal with enlisted accessions and approximately 150 who are dedicated to bringing in new officers: medical professionals, chaplains, and line officers. The recruiting force is spread across 1,300 offices in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific. “We are the smallest and, I like to say, the most competitive and powerful, productive recruiting organization among the services,” stated Ayyar. He said that while “there is always friendly competition” with the other services’ recruiters, they actually work well together.

USAF security forces and their working dogs patrol an air show at JBSA-Randolph, Tex. Air shows are an important recruiting venue. (USAF photo by Melissa Peterson)

The recruiting service is responsible for accessing 100 percent of the Active Duty enlisted force, 100 percent of Active Duty chaplains, 90 percent of Active Duty health professions officers, and approximately 15 percent of Active Duty line officers for Officer Training School. (The Air Force brings in most new officers through the Air Force Academy and the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.)

The Air National Guard has a separate force of about 500 recruiters, while the Air Force Reserve fields a cadre of slightly more than 300 recruiters. Recruiters from all three components go through “rigorous training” that starts off with the Air Force Recruiting School at JBSA-Lackland, Tex., said Cavenaugh. At the schoolhouse, their instruction includes professional sales training.

“Once they graduate [from] the school, they are entered into an on-the-job training program that lasts about a year” before they can be certified as a recruiter, said Cavenaugh. About 70 percent of Active Duty enlisted accession recruiters work in one-person offices, with responsibility for a zone, a specific geographic area. For example, AFRS has one enlisted recruiter who covers all of Washington, D.C. Conversely, health professions recruiters operate together in hubs in parts of the nation where there is “a rich recruiting environment” for doctors and nurses, said Ayyar.

Recruiters are trained to go after “the highest performing young men and women in any market,” he said. They look for physically fit youth who have indicated an interest in service and who have a strong math and science background, since the high-tech Air Force requires airmen steeped in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—to execute the service’s advanced missions.

Requirements for some career fields are quite tough, said Ayyar. “You have to be in pretty good physical shape to consider Air Force special operations, for example, and so our recruiters have to find their way into the most competitive athletic environments to find young men and women who might be interested in that.”

“With battlefield airmen, we have found a lot of success by targeting the wrestling teams in the high schools [and] the water sports,” noted Cavenaugh. “We know that folks with those sports-related backgrounds tend to do a little better” in qualifying for that field. Ayyar said recruiting health professionals “is extraordinarily competitive” since remuneration is so high for top-notch doctors in the civilian market. “In some cases, we are courting medical professionals for 18 or 24 months before we can get them to a point where they are ready to make a decision to serve their nation,” he said. Health professions recruiters sponsor visits to San Antonio so interested doctors and nurses can tour Air Force medical facilities there.

Social Media

As a way to pique interest in the service, USAF has for 12 years sponsored a race car in partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports. (USAF photo by SSgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

Recruiters need to have “thick skin” and be flexible, said Cavenaugh. “You’ve got to be able to handle rejection, but at the same time, be persistent,” he said. “From a recruiter’s perspective, they have to run through about 100 or so folks before they get to that one who can actually join the Air Force.”

While that really hasn’t changed over time, what has is the way recruiters have to access the youth—hence AFRS’ transformation efforts. “This generation is less likely to use a phone than they are text, and … e-mail is passé for many of the young men and women we are engaged with now,” said Ayyar. “They will view their Facebook page in some cases every hour of the day and they will respond via text when they won’t return calls.”

Accordingly, AFRS is instructing its recruiters on how to operate in the social media world and engage interested youth in a professional manner that leads “to a physical meeting and then the beginning of the process of accessing,” said Ayyar. In the case of Facebook, the Active Duty recruiters will use their new accounts “to keep content flowing and inspire” the youth, he said.

AFRS has also been enriching its online content at airforce.com, the Active Duty component’s interactive recruiting website. “In a very real and authentic way, they can find airmen who made the choice they are thinking about making and hear about their experience.” That online experience, “we think, will validate what a recruiter might tell them when a recruiter talks to them,” said Ayyar.

The Air Guard has the GoANG.com interactive website, providing information to those interested in service as citizen airmen. It established an official Facebook page in 2010, but hasn’t yet created individual pages for each of its recruiters, said Col. Marie E. Wauters, ANG recruiting and retention chief.

Air Force Reserve also has “a very strong Web presence,” including AFRlive.com where interested parties can post questions and receive feedback, said Col. Joe Wilburn, Air Force Reserve Command recruiting service commander. The Reserve is also “very comfortable” with its social media presence. “A whole host of Air Force Reserve recruiters” have Facebook pages, he said.

Each of the Air Force’s components engage in marketing activities, such as sponsoring NASCAR drivers. The Air Force Reserve partners with musical performers such as Blake Shelton and the band Daughtry. Behind the scenes, “what you don’t normally see are four or five recruiters” at the events, said Cavenaugh. They’ve got “a tent set up and [are] talking to folks and generating leads and helping young Americans understand what service in the United States Air Force is all about.”

As part of its internal transformation, AFRS awarded in March, for the first time, the designation of Master Recruiter to 10 of its most-senior recruiters. It is a recognition “that the most important resource that we have is the professional recruiter,” stated Ayyar. “Master Recruiters basically have demonstrated the breadth of experience within the recruiting service, the leadership within recruiting service, to operate at the highest levels and to provide strategic-level guidance” to the AFRS leadership, said Cavenaugh, a 23-year recruiting veteran who received Master Recruiter badge No. 0001.

Airmen in Georgia hustle through Moody Air Force Base’s portion of a 2,182-mile Ruck March to Remember, a 9/11 memorial event. Showing the service colors while out in surrounding communities is an important outreach tactic for recruiting. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jamal D. Sutter)

Master Recruiters are stepping up efforts to mentor newer recruiters, he said. Already teams of them have gone out to the field on mentoring visits, he said. AFRS intends to build to “about 60 to 70 Master Recruiters,” said Cavenaugh.

Also under the transformation, AFRS has implemented the “Recruiter After Next” initiative. This reinforces to current recruiters the imperative of building and maintaining relationships with their communities, in particular the “influencer networks” of school coaches and counselors who help point interested students to an Air Force recruiter. Even when recruiting times are good, recruiters need to nurture those relationships and maintain their recruiting chops, so to speak, to prepare them for more challenging times, said Ayyar.

“We succeed based on the relationships that we build in the communities,” said Cavenaugh. Thus, recruiters “need to consistently be out in their zone, building and cultivating those mutually beneficial relationships,” he said. Recruiter After Next, as the name implies, also stresses the importance of each recruiter keeping that foundation strong, so the follow-on recruiter for that zone doesn’t have to rebuild those relationships from scratch.

The Reserve Components

“It is far more powerful … to stay competitive in the market than it is to try to get competitive,” said Ayyar.

AFRS is also calling on every airman to help recruit the next generation. “One of the challenges that we have is we are a very small recruiting force,” said Ayyar. Accordingly, “we really encourage and challenge the larger Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve force to be representatives … in their local communities.”

Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar (l), Air Force Recruiting Service commander, presents TSgt. Leonor Roman with a medallion during an Operation Blue Suit ceremony. (USAF photo)

The recruiting service instituted the “We Are All Recruiters” program. It includes outreach efforts such as an airman wearing his uniform and speaking about his service life to his old high school during a visit home, or airmen who are competing in running or cycling races wearing blue shirts with Air Force logos to help create awareness.”We are trying to help the larger Air Force recognize … that they have an important role to play in talking about the capabilities that the Air Force provides the nation,” said Ayyar. “This discussion, in the larger sense, is very important to our future as a service.”

The Air Guard and Reserve have traditionally sought out prior-service airmen or prior-service personnel from the other military branches to fill a large portion of their ranks. For example, between 2007 and 2011, some 48 percent of Air Guard accessions were prior-service individuals, said Wauters. The majority of them were former Active airmen, she said.

The Air Guard has 23 in-service recruiters stationed at bases throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. “Their role is to make contact with members leaving Active service,” she said. They offer them “part-time employment, continuation of military benefits, such as education assistance, and the opportunity to continue their contributions to the country and their local communities” through Air Guard membership.

However, as Active Duty end strength has come down and retention remained high, the reserve components’ pool of prior service airmen has gotten smaller. “In the early 1990s, there were times when 80 percent of the people whom we recruited were prior Air Force,” said Wilburn. He noted that over the past two fiscal years, just about half of Reserve accessions were prior-service airmen, and another 10 percent were personnel who separated from another service.

Another difference between Active and reserve component recruiting is that Active Duty recruiters bring in accessions to fill positions nationally, while Air Guard and Reserve recruiters bring in accessions from the local community generally to serve in that same locality. “Our citizen airmen are members of their local community, so we must ensure our missions are the right fit for that particular region,” said Wauters. The Guard and Reserve also offer part-time service opportunities with skills training, in addition to full-time positions.

The Air Force plans a series of end-strength reductions next year, totaling 9,900 airmen compared to 2012. Cuts will total 3,900 in the Active Duty; 5,100 for the Air National Guard; and 900 in the Air Force Reserve.

Despite those planned manpower reductions, USAF plans a “minimal” reduction in accessions next year, said Tina S. Strickland, division chief for USAF accessions and training at the Pentagon. Cutting too many accessions would “create holes” in career fields that ripple through the force for decades. “We try to minimize those reductions and use voluntary force management programs to meet our [end strength] goals,” she said.

Determining the accessions goals for enlisted airmen and officers is “complicated,” said Strickland. End strength requirements and budget constraints shape those goals, she said, and enlisted accessions goals have to take into account attrition at basic military training. “They get in there and it is just more than they can handle. They get sick. They get injured,” she explained. She noted, however, that attrition at BMT “is very low right now.”

The accessions goals may require adjustments as the fiscal year progresses, said Strickland. “Our goal is to, by the end of any particular fiscal year, to get to our authorized end strength. We don’t want to be too far over. We don’t want to be too far under,” she said. “Our force management team works very hard to make sure we meet those numbers.”

TSgt. Victor Follis and his wife, Jillian, pass under an archway of swords during an Operation Blue Suit ceremony. Blue Suit annually recognizes top USAF recruiters worldwide. (USAF photo by Christa D’Andrea)

In Fiscal 2012, AFRS’ goals for the Active Duty—still subject to change—are to bring in some 28,276 enlisted recruits and 1,514 officer recruits (nearly one-third of the Air Force’s total officer accessions). The Air Guard’s goals are 8,210 enlisted and 2,553 officer accessions. For the Air Force Reserve, the numbers are 8,639 enlisted and 1,173 officer accessions. Through half of the fiscal year, all three components were on track to meet those accessions goals.

Jones said the Active Duty recruiting plan for Fiscal 2013 calls for reducing enlisted accessions by some 1,232 individuals, but there will be no reduction in officer accessions.

To support recruiting efforts next fiscal year, the Air Force has requested $82 million for the Air Force Recruiting Service and an additional $97 million for advertising, said Jones. That’s “a slight reduction in the total recruiting budget from [Fiscal] 2012,” he said.

Jones said nine career fields, such as linguist, special operations, and explosive ordnance disposal specialties, have “high operational demand where critical shortages remain.” To help attract young Americans with the skills to enter those fields, the service has budgeted for $14.5 million in initial enlistment bonuses in Fiscal 2013, he said.

Recruiting at the Tip of the Spear

MSgt. Jivaro Johnson is the Air Force’s enlisted accession recruiter in Washington, D.C. Out of his one-person downtown office, he oversees a zone of some 65 square miles containing 17 public high schools and an annual pool of some 2,400 seniors. That pool grows when factoring in the private high schools, which he engages but to a lesser extent, he said in an interview at his office.

A nine-year airman with two-and-half years of recruiting under his belt, Johnson is charged with averaging two accessions each month. He will work with scores of interested youth for each accession that actually makes it through the recruiting process all the way to basic military training at JBSA-Lackland.

Johnson’s first guiding principle is to “be a great airman,” acting with integrity as a beacon for attracting recruits. He also seeks to draw applicants from the broadest of demographic landscapes and recruit the best of the best.

Although his new Facebook page will help him make connections, his outreach to a new crop of prospects usually begins on the telephone. He’ll call seniors and invite them to stop by his setup when he visits their school. He attends career fairs and local events, such as festivals, “where a lot of people are, so they can see us in their communities,” he said.

His first face-to-face interactions at the schools are meant to build rapport. If a student seems interested, Johnson will gauge eligibility for service. If the student seems like a sound fit—good grades, in physical shape, no criminal record—Johnson will recommend visiting the recruiting office. “Our goal for a qualified kid is to get them in our office,” he explained.

There, Johnson can begin selling the interested student on the Air Force. He focuses on the individual’s needs to help the student see how his or her goals, such as job security or a college education, align with what the Air Force offers.

CMSgt. William Cavenaugh (r) and his wife, Kristi (c), dine with USAF trainees during basic military training at JBSA-Lackland, Tex. (USAF photo)

If the student has no disqualifying tattoos (e.g., above the collarbone or gang-related) and does well on the enlistment screening test Johnson administers in the office, “we are going to get you ready to join,” he said. Thus starts the paperwork process for the now-applicant, including providing personal information and medical history. Minors need parental consent.

At this point, Johnson schedules the applicant’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and sends the medical history up the chain for review. If there are no medical red flags and the applicant passes the ASVAB, a physical exam or screening and a morals interview come next, up at the military entrance processing station in Baltimore.

Johnson then works with the applicant to pick some 10 preferred career fields, with the understanding that the Air Force will do its best on placement, based on physical attributes and ASVAB score. The applicant is then sworn in as a “DEP,” shorthand for those placed in the Delayed Entry Program. In the case of a high school senior, the student may not have graduated yet. The agreement is that the DEPs will stay qualified for Air Force service during this time, and the service will reserve a slot for them.

Johnson continues to engage face-to-face with DEPs during this interim period to ensure they “walk the straight and narrow” until they leave for BMT. The frequency of these meetings increases as the ship-out date nears. On that day, the DEP is sworn into the Air Force at the processing station.

The now-airman trainee then leaves for Lackland and eight weeks and three days of BMT, while Johnson continues working to bring in the next batch of future airmen.