COVID-19's impact on Army recruiting

Caden Houser, 17, who will be a senior at MacArthur High School this fall, has his temperature taken at the Army's recruiting station in Central Mall by Sgt. 1st Class Allen Karnes, who has served as an Army recruiter for the past three years. 

COVID-19 has definitely changed the way Army recruiters do business, according to Sgt. 1st Class William C. Hill, station commander for Lawton’s Army Recruiting Office.

Before the pandemic, recruiters spent a lot of time in high schools and the outside market — out in cities and towns, in meetings and public events. Now, it’s anybody’s guess as to which schools, or if in fact any schools, will resume in-seat classroom instruction this fall.

“So not being able to go to the high schools is one huge problem — to be able to generate rapport with the kids, with the teachers, the faculty, the community partners and stuff like that,” Hill said.

No hometown recruiting

As former 428th Field Artillery Brigade commander Col. Jeffrey Buck noted at a recent Fort Sill town hall, hometown recruiting by Advanced Individual Training (AIT) graduates waiting to go to an overseas duty station has been suspended until further notice.

Even if the program hadn’t been put on hold, it wouldn’t do any good to send AIT grads back to their hometowns right now.

Hill sized it up by saying, “With the hometown recruiters, when we get them, all we do is go take them to the high schools with the recruiters when they’re doing a class presentation or a table setup or a ‘meet and greet.’ And then we take them back to the high schools that they graduated from, that they have friends at, to kind of say, ‘Hey, this is my story, this is why I joined, here’s what boot camp was like, here’s what AIT was like.

“So right now that’s definitely not hurting us, because we can’t even go to the high schools. If they did come in to do hometown recruiting with us, it wouldn’t really be beneficial.”

Social media, referrals

If COVID-19 taught recruiters anything, it was how to make the most out of social media and referrals. Hill said it’s pretty much shifted all their effort in that direction.

“When I say referrals, all of my recruiters I’ve got — seven right now — maintain contact with the people that they’ve put in the Army over the last two, three, four years, and they continue to stay in contact with them,” he said.

Through these contacts the recruiters are able to reach out to the soldier’s friends and show them what their pal is doing in the Army. If they decide they like what they see, the recruiter can talk to them about what kind of medical and educational benefits they can get by joining the Army.

E-mailing and texting are effective, but the ability to post videos on Facebook and Twitter have been a huge boon for recruiting.

Despite the school closures, local recruiters have been constantly busy, he noted. And the added advertisement of Army Hiring Days, a three-day, nationwide recruitment effort held June 30 through July 2, made them even busier.

“We didn’t have as many people walking in the door, but we had a lot more phone calls, and then all the recruiters that have an individual professional Facebook page for recruiting purposes were getting more messages, more ‘Friend’ requests, more ‘likes’ on their posts, more social media engagement. And so was the station page, with messaging and people inquiring about Army and the opportunities and benefits,” the station commander said.

“So yeah, (Army Hiring Days) definitely did increase the traffic. We’re still kind of processing some of the people that we did engage with during that time period, because it does sometimes take 30 to 60 days to put somebody into the Army,” Hill said.

Recruits who signed up during Army Hiring Days were eligible to receive an extra $2,000 bonus, but so far no local recruit has actually qualified for that. Hill said three recent enlistments did get bonuses but it was lumped together with other incentives.

The Lawton office serves a 4,600-square-mile area that goes as far north as Anadarko, Gracemont and Mountain View-Gotebo, as far west as Indiahoma, as far east as Duncan and as far south as Waurika and Grandfield. During the recruiting month of March, it brought 15 people into the Army. Then the office had to close for the month of April.

“We opened back up in the month of May, and that month we put 13 people in, and that’s four to five higher than usual, each month,” said Hill.

“Thankfully it hasn’t hindered us at all. It’s kind of increased our production a little bit, just relying more on referrals and going that route. It’s easier on the recruiters, and it does save a lot more time being able to, one, work from home,” he said.

School closures

Hill admits that “in the long run it could hurt us if we’re not able to get back into the high schools to meet mass numbers of people, and more new people. But right now, for the short term, it definitely has not hurt us at all. It’s actually increased our production.”

The Lawton station commander said they’re reaping the benefit from shaping operations that were conducted over the past two to three years. Having STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Days at the high schools has had a lasting impact.

Corey Robertson, chief of advertising and public affairs with the Oklahoma City Recruiting Battalion, agrees:

“Not only for the battalion but the U.S. Army nationwide, it really wasn’t immune from COVID-19. We had put plans in place that included both virtual and physical events that we could recruit from, so fortunately when COVID happened we weren’t completely left in the dark. We did have virtual events.”

E-games with Gen Z

They also scoped out the perfect way to reach “Gen Z” — by holding e-sports tournaments. In addition to advertising job openings on Indeed, Munster and Job Boards, some recruiters have found success by playing late-night e-games. Robertson said they might get on at 10 p.m. and play until 2 in the morning.

“They’ll actively game with them, and they’ll talk to them and ask if they ever want to learn more about joining the military, joining the Army, and they’ll switch over to direct messaging, and they’re able to reach out that way and follow up with them at another time,” Robertson said.

Recently, U.S. Army Recruiting fielded its own e-sports team. The team has a tractor-trailer that travels the country. Inside the trailer portion the sides pop out, and the team sets up a “Spy vs. Spy” gaming console for people to come and play. While they’re there, they can also hear about the Army’s 150 career fields and how, once they’re enlisted, they can try out for the Army e-sports team and if they’re good enough to win one of the coveted spots, playing e-sports can be their full-time job in the Army.

Quality over quantity

Robertson adds that “regardless of the current environment, the U.S. Army is always looking for quality instead of quantity. The standards to enlist have not changed, just the method on how we see recruits enlisting now is really the only thing changing. We do want the best of the best, and quality is important.”

All this sounds great, doesn’t it? But the ability of Army recruiters to make do only goes so far.

One unfortunate byproduct of the shutdowns that happened in late March and early April was that the building that houses the Harry S Truman Education Center closed. This meant that the room where recruits could go to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) was no longer available.

And that meant that for four months recruiters had to go back to the way things were before March 2019. They had to drive recruits all the way to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Oklahoma City to take their tests. And they had to get there early. Because of social distancing requirements, not all computers are available for use, and others might be taken.

“Sometimes they might not get done until 7 or 7:30 at night. So that part of the process is taking a lot longer than it used to,” Hill said.

The good news is that the remote testing site in the Truman Education Center was back up and running July 20.

“We will utilize the facility every Monday and Thursday moving forward,” Hill said.

Taking temperatures

Also, when recruits meet with recruiters to do paperwork or other essential business, the recruiters have to take their temperature and ask the usual screening questions: Have you been around anyone who has had COVID-19, do you have any symptoms, have you traveled to any hotspots for the disease?

If anyone says yes to any of these questions, or they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, they can’t get on the bus to go to Oklahoma City. They have to do a 14-day self-quarantine. They’re not required to go in for testing, but it might expedite the process, because if their test results come back negative they can get out of quarantine sooner and go to the MEPS.

Not all paperwork has to be signed in person, Hill noted. Recruiters can use Facetime to watch them sign the necessary papers.

Avoiding COVID-19

Once they’ve signed, what advice do recruiters have for them while they’re waiting to report for Combat Basic Training?

Pay attention, because this is good advice for everybody:

“Don’t go to any parties. Don’t go to clubs. Don’t go sharing drinks. Don’t go drinking out of water fountains. Don’t bite your nails. Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Observe common good hygiene practices.”

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