Soldiers with the Recruitment Sustainment Program of the Vermont National Guard train new recruits on tactical combat casualty care at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Jericho, Vt., in May 2021.

Soldiers with the Recruitment Sustainment Program of the Vermont National Guard train new recruits on tactical combat casualty care at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Jericho, Vt., in May 2021. (Denis Nuñez/U.S. Army National Guard)

WASHINGTON — Leaders for the Army and Air National Guard said Wednesday that they hope to get closer to their recruiting goals in 2023 than they did last year, but they are battling tough competition from private companies such as FedEx, Microsoft and Wendy’s in attracting recruits to the military.

“This is the most challenging recruiting environment the Department of Defense has ever faced,” Col. Anthony Pasquale, division chief of Air National Guard recruiting and retention, told reporters Wednesday during a panel discussion.

Pasquale said he expects the Air National Guard to be between 3,000 to 4,000 recruits short of this year’s goal, though he is hopeful the service will “do a little better than that.” He said the Air National Guard is now at 97% of its end-strength target for this year of 108,000 airmen, which includes new and existing members.

Army National Guard leaders said they are on track to beat their recruiting performance last year, when it was 9,000 new members short. Col. Andrew Bishop, chief of the Army National Guard Strength Maintenance Division, said the Army Guard has so far signed up about 25,000 new members and expects to hit at least 95% of its total goal of 30,880 recruits.

There are still a few months remaining before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Pasquale said he expects July, August and September to be “big recruiting months” for the Air National Guard.

The military has faced increased recruiting challenges for the past few years, and officials said the problem was made worse by the coronavirus pandemic because it took recruiters out of the field. Other challenges include a smaller candidate pool and less interest in serving among young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24, according to Pentagon data. Additional difficulties, recruiters on the panel said, include finding a toehold in the digital space and competing with private companies, and more flexibility in the post-pandemic job market.

“What we have seen in the last few years [is] … people want remote positions,” said Senior Master Sgt. Chris Perez, senior enlisted adviser of recruiting and retention for the Washington Air National Guard. “It’s not like we can just allow a person to move on from one organization and jump jobs like in the private sector. But we do offer great incentives, great benefits.”

“To be honest with you, it’s Wendy’s, it’s Carl’s Jr., it’s every single job that a young person can go up against because now they are offering the same incentives that we are offering,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Marco Irenze, a longtime recruiter in the Recruiting and Retention Battalion of the Nevada Army National Guard. “That’s our competition right now.”

The recruiters on the panel said an extra hurdle with the National Guard is people often don’t know they could take a private job and join the National Guard part-time.

“A lot of [people] don’t actually know what we truly do as guardsmen,” said Staff Sgt. Yoon Kim, a recruiter with the Illinois Army National Guard’s Woodstock Recruit Sustainment Program. “Once they hear what we have to say, they also kind of realize that it can all work together with their civilian factors, as well.”

Kim said companies such as FedEx and UPS Inc. are offering “very similar benefits” as the National Guard, and others pointed out that competition for cyber talent has been particularly tough with companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are also struggling again with recruiting this year. For 2022, the Army was 15,000 soldiers short of its target and it’s already said meeting the goal of 65,000 this year will be a challenge. The Air Force said a few weeks ago it expects to be 10% short of its recruiting goal and the Navy projects to be a few thousand sailors shy of its target of 38,000. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, said it will meet its goal this year, as it did last year.

“They do a phenomenal job,” Pasquale said of the Marine Corps. “Some of the stuff they do, which I think is a great technique and we’re trying to emulate that a little bit here, is when a certain geographic area is not making mission, they will deploy assistance to that location.”

Retention, though, is a different story. The number of troops choosing to remain in the military across the board is high, according to each of the services.

“Our retention is extremely high. At our last count, we were at 95.8% retention,” Pasquale said, adding the figure is about 2% higher than normal for this time of year. “Most of our struggles have come on the recruiting end.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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