Military recruiters struggle with effects of COVID-19 restrictions
By EDIE SCHMIERBACH | The Free Press | Published: November 15, 2020
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MANKATO, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Local recruiters have had to find new strategies for piquing young people's interest in joining the military.
Coronavirus restrictions have made it difficult to meet in person with prospects to explain the benefits available in exchange for a commitment to helping defend the nation.
Doors have temporarily shut on opportunities to set up at career fairs or to meet with students in their schools.
"It was face-to-face before COVID," said Sgt. Jason Lee, U.S. Army recruiting company commander at Mankato.
He said it's easier to discuss the pros and cons of military service during in-person interactions.
Lee, who grew up in Washington state, has been serving at Mankato for about a year. He's found the task of recruiting potential soldiers from within the state already came with a unique challenge.
"Minnesota is the only state in the country that doesn't have an active duty base," he said.
Familiarity is a driving factor in young men and women's decisions to sign up, he said.
Lee himself came in to military late in the game, he said. He was influenced by an uncle who served in Desert Storm.
"I didn't consider it until I was a sophomore in high school. Then I became intrigued. I wanted to find a way to support my higher education aspirations."
Patriotism also can play a part in a recruit's decision.
"My parents are South Korean immigrants," Lee said. "My serving in the military is one way I can give back to the country."
If they are not from families where service is a tradition, Minnesota youths aren't likely to have the military on their life-choices radar as those who grew up near bases.
Youths who've already heard about the Army's career training and financial aid usually have goals in mind by the time they contact his office, Lee said.
Minnesota is not the only state experiencing a decline in enlistees.
"When COVID hit, it changed everything — not just for my company but nationwide," Lee said
Last year, the Army met its goal in signing up more than 68,000 active-duty soldiers and was on track for similar numbers this year, Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command told the Army Times last November.
This March, the Army had signed up about 2,200 more recruits than it had by the same time last year, Muth and officials at Army Recruiting Command, told the Army Times in May.
Then the pandemic began to dampen recruiting efforts as brick-and-mortar shops shuttered.
"Had we not been in a position to virtually recruit: One, we would have risked the force, and two, we would have done about zero (new contracts)," Muth said.
The Army had earlier invested into a new recruiting campaign, spearheaded by a new Chicago-based marketing team intent on harnessing big data analytics and the digital space to find potential soldiers.
For the past several months, Lee and his crew have looked to social media as a method of explaining what the Army has to offer. Throughout the pandemic, they've kept in contact with the Maverick Army Reserve Officer Training Corps leaders. The program includes cadets who are students at Minnesota State University, Bethany Lutheran College and Gustavus Adolphus College.
Randy S. Herman, recruiting operations officer, said ROTC's numbers are down as a result of the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ROTC at Mankato has increased its social media presence with added advertising on Facebook and Instagram, Herman said.
"We have had some success with awareness by using a marketing messages and video for the age group 17-25."
Eighteen MSU freshmen enrolled, 15 of those have ROTC scholarships. The sophomore class added three cadets and the junior class added five, making it the ROTC's largest class with a total of 26.
Herman said accessibility to high school, colleges, and other events for awareness and tabling for information on ROTC has been almost none.
Scholarships provided to high school students have been held up because ROTC's guidelines require the applicants' SAT scores — and college tests had been canceled.
"So the impact (of COVID) is great and as things moved to virtual/Zoom, ROTC has seen a decline on interaction with prospects...(that) limits the chances of getting our message out on what the ROTC program has to offer and opportunities for leadership.
"On the plus side, the kids that are reaching out are stronger in their drive and desire to do this."
Nathaniel L. Tucek, an MSU student and cadet, said the ROTC has given him a home away from home and opportunity for an education and a career.
"I have been empowered to become a leader in the classroom and community. From the skills we learn in the classroom and the confidence inspiring field experiences, Maverick Battalion ROTC has molded me into a person I could look up to when I was younger," he said.
"ROTC has provided me with a family away from home and given me lifelong connections that I will hold close to me forever."
He said he can focus on graduation requirements and not worry about getting a job at the same time as he will move into active duty upon graduation.
Interested prospects and their parents are sent ROTC program guides that describe ROTC's mission and how cadets are coached, trained and mentored.
One of those mentors is Tim Adams at the MSU Veterans Resources Center.
Adams said the center is there for all students connected to the military. Although there's no foot traffic past his office now, he has been and will be available to talk to any student who is considering joining the service. He'll tell them the reasons he joined both the Naval Reserve and Minnesota National Guard.
"I wanted to see other parts of the world. Then there were the education benefits and I wanted to serve my country."
The military gave him his education, his job and great medical care, Adams said.
He said it's a good opportunity for men and women to give back to their country; however he promised no strong-arm tactics would be used when people come to him with questions about making a commitment to the military or a specific branch.
"You aren't doing the military any favors if you join and then find out you really don't want to be there."