La Quinta High JROTC Christopher Lynn, 15, right, picks up a rocket launcher while assisted by Army Sgt. Willie Ouyang during the Army Career Fair at the Armed Forces Reserve Center near Moreno Valley on Oct. 24, 2023.

La Quinta High JROTC Christopher Lynn, 15, right, picks up a rocket launcher while assisted by Army Sgt. Willie Ouyang during the Army Career Fair at the Armed Forces Reserve Center near Moreno Valley on Oct. 24, 2023. (Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — While Army recruitment missed its goal nationally in 2022 by about a third of needed enlistments, Southern California recruiters came much closer to their mission — in part because of an upswing in interest among high school students, officials said.

“The biggest shift in the way we’ve been recruiting is that we understand that there is a huge knowledge gap of what the public thinks about Army service,” said Maj. Antoine Evans, executive officer of the Army’s Southern California Recruiting Battalion. “Most of the time, people think it’s bullets, tanks and bombs. We need to close that gap and let joining the Army become Plan A, not Plan B. We need educators to put us in the same conversation as Amazon or Google and let the student decide.”

Army recruiters have prioritized introducing prospective future soldiers to the more than 200 career options available in the service by putting on large job fairs. And some of the Army’s coolest bling — including drones, Humvees and helicopters typically only seen at events such as air shows — has even been brought in from bases in other states for events held in Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego counties to help build interest.

The Army has made West Coast recruitment a priority, including directing more funding and personnel to the “surge.”

On Tuesday, about 1,000 high school students in Riverside County were bussed to the nearby March Air Reserve Base for one of the new job fairs, where soldiers explained their careers and their benefits, including the GI Bill, and the adventures and responsibilities that come with their duties. The fair continues on Wednesday.

While the students get up-close and personal with Army soldiers, so do local educators, which officials said is key in keeping the conversation of military service in the foreground as an option for graduating students.

Earlier this year, another 1,300 students from schools represented by the San Diego County of Education visited the Van Deman Hall US Army Reserve Center and mini fairs have been held at high schools in Orange County.

“That’s the best way to tell the stories,” said Evans, who has served for 18 years and earned four degrees during that time. “Seeing it, hearing a soldier talk about life as a soldier is 100% more impactful than sitting in front of someone’s recruiting desk.”

Among the most popular military occupational specialties for future soldiers in Southern California are cyber, IT-related fields, aviation technicians and pilots, and nursing. In other areas such as Texas and the greater South, there is more interest in combat fields such as special operations, artillery and tanks, said Benjamin Newell, a spokesperson for the Southern California Recruiting Battalion.

Capt. Chris Monroe, who is part of the Army’s new Futures Command, talked with students at Tuesday’s job fair about the Army’s new “software factory,” which didn’t even exist when the West Point grad commissioned six years ago. As an engineering officer, he is among a group of developers who spend their time coding new apps and building websites for the Army.

“A lot of high school students — and adults — think there are only two or three jobs in the Army,” he said. “I tell them, ‘You do coding in high school, you can continue growing in those skills and serve your country in the Army.’ Many of them said, ‘I didn’t know that was even possible.’”

Monroe, from Jackson, Miss., said his Army career has exceeded his expectations for the opportunities he’s been given. He completed his maters degree at Georgia Technical University while serving and now is part of things he never imagined.

Shane Sands, principal at Vista Murrieta High School, was at Tuesday’s recruitment fair with 33 students.

“Mostly, they were excited,” Sands said. “Some, who didn’t know what to expect, were a little apprehensive at first, but once they got their hands on the equipment and talked with the soldiers, that changed.”

Sands said he and other educators have seen increased interest in military service among their students. In the past, he said, it was more of a conversation with students at alternative learning schools — where he also worked for five years — but the trend of opening up the military conversation is now being seen at the mainstream campuses.

“That’s really transitioned in the last year,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of positive rewards and, as a district, we’ve been talking about equalizing the conversation as far as promoting military service along with other career choices and not only pushing every student to go to college.”

And, even if a student doesn’t decide to join the Army or decides military service isn’t for them, exposure to a variety of jobs has additional benefits.

“For a professional that happens to be a soldier to talk to about a career pathway or a specific job, it might spark their interest that way as well,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Upperman, commanding officer of the Southern California Recruiting Battalion. “We can support the schools’ effort in talking over blindspots that kids have and opening up what’s possible. Not only in military service, but just in life in general.”

The collaboration with educators just over the last year has shown positive gains to the Army’s recruiting efforts in Southern California.

In the last year, the Southern California Army Recruiting Battalion has increased recruiting by 910 enlistments — for a total of 2,700 people joining. Since September, they’ve engaged with 9,000 Californians who qualify and are interested in serving, officials said.

“Compared to where we were a year ago, we’re definitely on an incline,” Evans said. “We were one of the bottom battalions; we finished this fiscal year second in the nation. But the Army as a whole should also improve.”

U.S. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth recently called for immediate reforms to recruitment efforts when the service branch missed its mark for a second year in a row — the branch has been struggling with recruitment for several years. She emphasized the importance of reforming recruiting by keeping up with market trends and shifting the model to more closely represent the private sector, including large job fairs and better exposure beyond the traditional recruit depots.

“As a recruiting force, we cannot be successful without strong partners, and in Southern California, the strongest partners we have are the educators that help us identify opportunities to share our message and close that knowledge gap,” Upperman said.

Giving educators a chance to speak with soldiers also helps de-mystify what being a soldier involves, he said, emphasizing that if a soldier does it right, they can finish a four-year degree in a tour of duty.

“We are much more personable and approachable than a lot of folks assume,” Upperman said. “And as they talk to the professionals, a lot of educators recognize how educated, thoughtful, talented, and well-spoken (soldiers) are. It reinforces in their mind the Army is not just a fallback option.”

©2023 MediaNews Group, Inc.


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