- The Washington Times
Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Military recruiting is poised to enter a “new phase” as the COVID-19 pandemic forces the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to shift away from traditional face-to-face outreach in favor of a virtual approach as the services prepare to fall short of their manpower goals this year.

Long before the COVID-19 outbreak paralyzed much of the country and shut down major parts of American society, the military services were already struggling to meet annual recruiting targets. The armed forces were competing with a historically strong job market to attract the best talent, and then the spread of the coronavirus injected an unprecedented level of uncertainty into the recruiting process. If large-scale economic shutdowns and “social distancing” remain ways of life for the foreseeable future, analysts say, the military may have to move its focus away from bringing in new members to retaining the ones it already has.

“It’s a new phase. They’re going to have to explore things they haven’t done before,” said Beth J. Asch, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. who specializes in military recruiting.

“In these kinds of situations, what the services need to be concerned about is end strength,” she said. “They’ll have to think not just about recruiting, but also retention. If recruiting is more difficult … then the services will have to think about retaining more people they have on hand already to retain their end strength goals.”

It will likely take months before services can measure the short- and long-term effects of the coronavirus outbreak on recruiting, but early signs are troubling. The shutdowns of malls and shopping centers and the cancellations of major spring and summer events — traditionally the most fertile ground for military recruiters — are forcing a sharp recalculation of resources.

Beyond that, the rapid spread of the coronavirus also is taking its toll on bricks-and-mortar recruiting stations, which for years have been key avenues for young men and women to meet in person with recruiters and get pitches about careers in the military.

The Army announced Friday that it was moving all of its recruiting stations to “mobile and virtual operations” and would temporarily cease face-to-face contact between recruiters and prospective soldiers.

“We are very confident in our ability to operate in the virtual space, as it has become a primary method of talking to potential soldiers in recent years,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command. “While face-to-face discussions are valuable when discussing options to serve in the U.S. Army, we are able to work around that, if necessary.”

The Marine Corps on Wednesday also announced it will stop all in-person interviews and, like the Army, move to an entirely digital approach to recruiting.

“The preservation of our recruiting force, applicants, poolees, and their families is the highest priority for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command during this national emergency,” said Maj. Gen. James W. Bierman, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “With that in mind, we will immediately transition to prospecting exclusively via digital and telephonic means, and no longer initiate in-person interviews.”

Army officials also revealed that a recruiter assigned to the Army 2nd Recruiting Brigade in the southeastern U.S. had tested positive Friday for infection from the coronavirus. A recruiter based in the northeast tested positive on Sunday.

Their names and specific locations have not been revealed. Army officials say they are undertaking the painstaking process of identifying anyone with whom those two recruiters may have had contact.

Tight market

The Army fell short of its recruiting goal for the first time in a decade in 2018 after pulling in about 70,000 new soldiers. The goal was 76,500.

Last year, the Army achieved its goal of 68,000, but analysts say hitting those marks would be a long-term challenge for each of the services — even before the unprecedented national health crisis.

Each branch of the military has instituted strict testing protocols for all new arrivals to training and boot camps.

Recruits also are screened to ensure they haven’t been exposed to the coronavirus or haven’t traveled to parts of the world that could put their health in jeopardy. The danger was vividly illustrated this week when the Navy reported the first cases of COVID-19 among sailors on a deployed warship.

Unlike other services, Navy officials said Wednesday their physical recruiting stations remain open for now, with enhanced social distancing and sanitary precautions in place. But they also made clear they’re fully prepared to switch quickly and seamlessly if need be.

“Because of the transformation efforts Navy Recruiting started two years ago, our recruiters are well equipped and trained to recruit virtually,” Navy Recruiting Command said in a statement to The Times

“They are contributing to the Navy‘s recruiting mission by using social media platforms for virtual prospecting, as well as traditional telephone canvassing for potential applicants. Our cyber recruiters, including our call center and online chat at Navy.com, continue to operate as usual.”

Marine Corps officials told The Washington Times that the pandemic could have major, lasting ramifications for their ability to recruit young men and women.

“Large areas of the country, including all of California — where 12% of the nation’s population is located — are under various levels of mandatory shelter-in-place orders, and more communities will follow suit,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman. “That has a dramatic effect on our ability to prospect and limits our opportunities for the important in-person conversations that an applicant needs to have with a recruiter while considering decisions about his or her future. Many high schools and colleges are closed, which further limits our ability to maintain relationships with the students and influencers so important to recruiting operations.

“Since this disease and the public’s response is affecting different areas of the country in different ways, commanders have been given broad authority to implement any additional local controls they deem necessary to protect their Marines, poolees, families and communities,” he said.

The Army, Marine Corps and other branches now will shift further to social media outreach, virtual interactions and interviews with recruits, and other 21st-century methods of finding talent.

The military had migrated from the real world to the online world long before the coronavirus outbreak, but the national crisis will accelerate that transition exponentially.

“Organizations are going to have to rely on technology maybe more than they have in the past,” said Ms. Asch, the Rand Corp. analyst.

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.