Military recruiting takes a digital turn during the pandemic
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 14, 2020
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Staff Sgt. Riley Krebsbach still makes the same recruiting pitch to sell young Americans on the U.S. Army despite the current coronavirus outbreak, but his delivery is drastically different.
Face-to-face meetings with potential recruits have been replaced by long hours on a computer and smartphone — searching for and chatting with prospects in a safe digital environment.
Instead of working from his Moreno Valley recruiting station in southern California, visiting local high schools and canvassing community events to explain the benefits that come with Army service, Krebsbach now posts messages on social media and interviews prospects via video conferencing services from his home.
Because of social distancing, recruiters faced a sudden shift to telework and digital prospecting, which Krebsbach said was challenging. But it has led them to rethink the art of recruiting and find innovative ways to connect. The outbreak could have lasting impact on the way the military fills its ranks.
“The transition has been sort of an acquired skill set,” said Krebsbach, 31, who spent seven years in the infantry before shifting two years ago to a temporary recruiting assignment that he hopes to make permanent. “Getting used to working from home — moving us into social media and virtual prospecting. It’s not something we were very big on before, but we jumped right into it.”
“I’m already sure it will be a big part of recruiting for our future,” he said.
On March 18, the Army made an unprecedented decision in U.S. military recruiting history. The largest service shut down public access to its 1,400 recruiting stations. Krebsbach and others were ordered to telework when possible and target potential recruits online and by phone.
The other services quickly followed.
By March 25, when the Marine Corps announced it would shift prospecting efforts entirely to the virtual sphere, the Pentagon’s recruiting force of more than 20,100 service members had ditched recruiting stations and offices.
The military cannot simply stop recruiting, even in the face of the world’s worst health crisis in decades. It must bring young, healthy men and women into the services — more than 150,000 every year — to fill its ranks as others leave for civilian life.
Falling behind on recruiting has serious ripple effects.
For example, when the Army failed to meet its annual recruiting goal in 2018 for the first time since 2005, it was unable to meet its end-strength goal. That slowed the Army’s ability to prepare for potential conflict with near-peer adversaries like China and Russia. Top service officials found that the Army’s recruiting processes lagged decades behind in technology. Recruiters, Army leaders said, failed to target prized 17-to-24-year-olds where they were most likely to be found — sharing on social media and playing online video games.
The cost of corona
Despite the digital efforts, recruiting has suffered. All four services reported drops in the metrics that track progress on the recruiting front. In some cases, services fell short by thousands of new contacts with potential recruits. Others projected they would sign far fewer recruits to enlistment contracts amid the pandemic.
All of the services reported drastic declines in the number of recruits they sent into their initial entrance training pipelines.
The shift to full virtual recruiting cost Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the Army’s recruiting chief, and his team nearly two weeks of prospecting efforts.
He said he expects to face a shortfall by the end of May of about 3,100 recruits with signed contracts. His recruiters entered the pandemic with more than 2,000 signed contracts ahead of the short-term goals set by the Army.
“Even if we’re behind 3,500, 3,800, I still think with all of the innovation we are doing and the morale of the recruiters right now and how much they want to get after it — I think we’ll be able to make it,” Muth said.
While the Army does not yet have a specific recruiting goal for fiscal year 2020, Muth expects the number to fall just shy of the 68,000 that his organization exceeded last year. Service officials earlier this year floated an unofficial 69,000 recruit goal, but better-than-expected retention rates among current soldiers have likely lowered expectations.
The other military services reported similar shortfalls in March as the pandemic spread.
The Navy saw a 45 percent dip in qualified individuals expressing interest in March, compared to March 2019. The Navy’s recruiting chief, Rear Adm. Dennis Velez, attributed the sharp drop almost entirely to the impact of the coronavirus.
“March was probably the peak month for shock value — no one wants to go outside, no one wants to do anything. I think that will probably be the high mark,” Velez said from his office in Millington, Tenn. “I thoroughly believe as the country opens up we’re going to see our numbers normalizing. But 45 percent is a significant number and something we are really looking at closely to make sure it doesn’t become a trend.”
Velez anticipates his recruiters’ production surging in the summer months and his service meeting its original goal of 40,800 new recruits.
The Marine Corps lowered its goal for fiscal year 2020 by 2,000 amid the pandemic, aiming to ship 33,290 to basic training, said Gunnery Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a spokesman for Marine Recruiting Command.
The service saw a drop of about 25 percent in contacts with qualified individuals in March over the same month last year.
Kronenberg described the pandemic’s impacts on his service’s recruiting efforts as “dramatic.”
“Our systematic recruiting process has always placed a premium on ‘kneecap to kneecap’ interaction between a recruiter and applicant, so it may be challenging to replicate this physical assessment of those wanting to become Marines solely through tech mediums.”
Air Force officials expressed similar reservations as they saw drops in recruiting metrics in March that continued into April. But despite those drops, the Air Force reported its recruiters so far in 2020 have outpaced their performance in 2019, producing 50,000 more qualified leads between January and April 2020 than in the first four months combined in 2019.
Based on that early success, service officials waived individual goals for its more than 1,800 recruiters. The overall goal remains — to ship 29,068 recruits to basic training, according to Chrissy Cuttita, a spokeswoman for Air Force Recruiting Service.
‘I knew we were ready’
Amid the outbreak, the services have streamlined once-clunky procedures to screen and process prospective recruits, developed innovative tactics to target those prospects, and proven that recruiting can be done without stations and offices.
“I think what we’ve realized is that for a lot of the basic stuff, we can do it working from home,” said Tech Sgt. Joshua Stanley, an Air Force recruiter based in Dover, Del. “It shows we really can almost get you ready to go to a [Military Entrance Processing Station] before we ever see you in person. I don’t think we’d ever considered that before.”
Krebsbach said he looks forward to returning to high schools and large events, but he’ll continue to post daily workout videos and memes to Instagram and Facebook. He will keep targeting prospects through applications popular with younger people, like Snapchat, where he recently used a video feature to interview a potential recruit.
“I think it’s actually a little easier to ask questions over the digital plane than face-to-face in person for some people,” he said. “It can be intimidating sitting down in the office talking to someone in an Army uniform.”
Muth, who heads the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky., was confident his recruiters could handle the challenge of virtual prospecting. His decision to shutter stations from the general public was about protecting his own people, he said.
“We saw where this thing was going, so we came out of the stations,” he said. “We wanted to reduce the risk to our soldiers and their family members.”
Muth, a helicopter pilot by trade, led Army recruiting into a digital-first effort that he believes has positioned his enterprise well to weather the pandemic.
“I knew we were ready to do this,” Muth told Stars and Stripes. “Who would have thought that we would have had to exercise this at 100 percent?”
A new normal
Military leaders are already studying lessons learned from the sudden, drastic change to their recruiting model.
It could result in the reorganization of recruiting teams, drastic shifts toward virtual prospecting and other major changes to the business.
Muth, who this week allowed a select few recruiting stations to reopen to the public in areas deemed at less risk for the virus, is developing plans to change daily operations for his Army recruiting force. The general does not want to see recruiters return to spending large portions of their time in stations.
Instead, he wants recruiters there only for specific purposes, using offices as hubs between outings within their communities or time spent virtually prospecting from home. He likened them to patrol bases, small military outposts where troops stop for water, food or supplies.
He called it a “new version of the old norm.”
“I don’t need to be in the recruiting station to be able to recruit,” Muth said. “Does that mean that maybe they come into the patrol base every other day? And on those other days they are on their own — be it Starbucks or the high school or telecommuting from home.”
The Army could close some of its smaller stations as its recruiters base themselves out of their vehicles, similar to the model used by many pharmaceutical representatives.
“I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for the future,” Muth said.
Officials with other services could again follow the Army’s example. The Navy has empowered its recruiters to do much of their business away from stations, said Velez, the service’s recruiting chief.
“A recruiter right now has pretty much everything they need on a laptop,” he said. “So, when they meet with the individuals, they can take biometrics, get signatures all right on the spot — so you don’t need to meet in the [recruiting] building. You can meet someone in the Starbucks and do pretty much the entire process. …”
Recruiters said they were excited about some of the changes.
After the initial adjustment period in mid-March, Krebsbach said he pitched the Army to more people in the past month via social media than ever.
Master Sgt. Dana Bazile, an Air Force recruiting flight chief based in Pennsylvania, said she has seen innovation across the large group of recruiters she oversees.
“This is great opportunity to evaluate how we function on a day-to-day basis and eliminate wasted man hours,” she said. “The ways that our recruiters are now using technology, social media — that will continue to increase greatly from what we were doing before. We’re not going back, in that nature.”
The bottom line, Velez said, the Navy — and the entire the U.S. military — is open for business and needs new, dedicated people to fill its ranks. Recruiting is a no-fail mission, he said.
Recruiters “understand how critical it is for us to get new sailors and recruits into the Navy,” he said. “Because at the end of the day we have 90 plus ships at sea today — over one-third of our force is underway doing the nation’s business, and … if we fail at doing our part, some kid is going to stay at sea longer because we can’t get the right sailors through the schoolhouse to relieve him so he can get to shore duty and take a knee.”