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For military recruiters, the overall mission hasn't changed during the pandemic

In a Nov. 11, 2019 photo, U.S. Air Force Col. David S. Miller administers the Oath of Enlistment at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial in Albuquerque, N.M. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way recruiters work, but their goal is still to find the next group of young men and women to join their ranks.

AUSTIN J. PRISBREY/U.S. AIR FORCE

By JAMES BARRON | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: January 4, 2021

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SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Jordan Lucey has had to replace a handshake with an email or phone call when it comes to reaching out to high school and college students about careers in the armed forces.

A local talent acquisition manager for the U.S. Air Force, Lucey admitted he misses personal interaction with prospective recruits.

But recruiting is a new game amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of setting up shop at a high school or college career fair, or talking to a room full of students, Lucey has been using social media platforms and conducting virtual meetings.

The mission hasn't changed for him and other military recruiters: Find the next group of young men and women to join their ranks.

"You gotta be flexible, you gotta be agile, you gotta be willing to put one thing down and pick another thing up," Lucey said.

While recruiters were shut out of high school and college campuses for much of 2020, they didn't lose important contacts that are vital to their job. They still communicate with school counselors and instructors of Junior ROTC programs.

In some cases, it's a teacher or a coach who gives recruiters a heads up about a potential candidate.

Local recruiters and ROTC leaders said there is no shortage of interest in military opportunities among young people, even during the pandemic. In fact, the economic effects of COVID-19 might be prompting more students to consider military careers.

Craig Stapleton, the Junior ROTC instructor at Santa Fe High School, said the number of students in his program who are committed to serve in the armed forces — whether through officer training or regular enlistment — has not changed from previous years. Those planning to follow such a path generally are the ones who have been in the ROTC program for a few years and were considering joining the military long before COVID-19 arrived.

"For us, it really has been business as usual in that respect," Stapleton said. "It's really no different because once they make that decision, they're going to go deal with the recruiter."

Lucey said he's had more success recruiting college students than high school seniors. That's largely because the pandemic-era college campus experience has left much to be desired, with most classes conducted online and amenities shut down.

"Senior in high school enlistees are down slightly, but we have more high school graduates and college students coming in with interest," Lucey said. "In Northern New Mexico, those numbers have almost doubled. They are like, 'This is not what I signed up for in college,' not being in classes. It's harder to learn that way."

Employment is another factor that might be helping recruitment efforts, Lucey said.

With the unemployment rate still higher than usual and many businesses either shut down or operating at a limited capacity, military pay can be an attractive alternative to job seeking for young adults.

Another benefit is that those who sign up for military service will be eligible for the GI Bill and other tuition incentives to cover the cost of college later.

"Job security, it's huge," Lucey said. "We're guaranteeing them a job for the lifetime of their contract, so long as they abide by standards and keep their nose clean."

Recruiters still offer office visits with students to talk about a military career, and what that might look like. In-person meetings require temperature checks, face masks and social distancing, with public health guidelines strictly enforced.

Recruiters say candidates who demonstrate they are conscious about the importance of safety and health can make a lasting impression.

"Prior to the pandemic, our major focus was presenting opportunities that our organization has to offer," said Master Sgt. Greg Doss, who operates the northern recruiting office of the New Mexico National Guard. "Now what is on the forefront of our minds is health and safety concerns and how we can stay functional but also stay safe."

The National Guard can't always offer full-time work but reaches out to a broader base of the population — residents between the ages of 17 and 34.

Doss said he and his recruiting team attract people already in the workforce as well as students in high school and college. Many of them want to make a difference in their local community by serving in the National Guard, he said.

Doss cited the organization's work in the battle against COVID-19 — assisting with testing and distributing vaccines. This work is a recruiting tool, he said, because people can see the value of what they would be doing if they joined.

"We have just under 3,000 Guardsmen who [are] in various communities across New Mexico," Doss said. "They're helping out with the COVID-19 outbreak, and the families and friends and neighbors of those individuals see how we're helping out our community. That in itself helped us get referrals, which is a pretty ideal situation for us."

Lucey said military recruiters often face a stigma — that they are trying to lure unwitting young people into service — and he tries to assuage those fears by having a very open and frank discussion with each candidate.

"Being an informed student, that's the idea," Lucey said. "We talk to kids about college, we talk about all of their options. We talk to counselors all the time about being on the same page and making sure we're not here to try and trick a kid into service.

"We like to consider ourselves as a local asset — someone who is a subject-matter expert on career paths."

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