No More ‘Kneecap to Kneecap’ Talks: Coronavirus Hinders Military Recruiting
“There is no substitute for face-to-face conversations when trying to get Americans to sign up to be service members. Boot camp outbreaks slow the pipeline, too.”
WASHINGTON (May 20, 2020) — The Army is in constant need of new soldiers, and Sgt. Austin West knows precisely where to find them and reel them in: high school auditoriums, local fairs and even Walmart. At the store, he casually questions workers to “see how they are doing there, how they like their job, to see if we can tailor their hopes” to fit with the Army’s need for thousands of new recruits each year.
These days, his operations have been largely contained to his house near Syracuse in Calcium, N.Y., where the coronavirus pandemic has him grounded. His cats have replaced colleagues as he confabs with potential candidates over a computer screen in his living room (one of the better spots for his Wi-Fi), turning the camera around to show them job listings.
He makes sure his guitars are in the background and has taken to wearing casual clothes rather than a uniform, so that potential soldiers might conclude, “This is a different kind of guy,” Sergeant West said. “You have to explore new things in these times.”
A faltering economy usually spells success for military recruiters. But a sector that relies on face-to-face interactions to bring in newcomers — followed by mandatory medical exams and intensive job training in close quarters — has been hampered by the pandemic, which has curtailed recruitment efforts and hobbled some service members who are forced into quarantine for weeks on end before they can get to their first assignment.
The combination has the potential to compromise the pipeline that is essential to the military’s goal of perpetual readiness, a central concern of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Last month, Matthew Donovan, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, suggested that not all the services were going to meet their recruiting goals this year with the pressures of Covid-19.
“The military has not been able to recruit as effectively since the pandemic began, because so much of the recruiting process involves developing good personal relationships,” said Nora Bensahel, a visiting professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“The Army, for example, enlisted 5,500 fewer people in March than expected,” Ms. Bensahel said. “Army leaders expect to be able to make up those numbers over the summer and fall, and they could be right about that,” she added. “But the longer that restrictive measures last, the harder it will be to make their recruiting goals.”
In late March, as coronavirus cases rose, the Army halted training exercises, only to reverse itself days later.
Many military officials say they hope to make up the difference by increasing retention of service members considering leaving active duty. Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, the Army’s top enlisted soldier, for instance, said the Army is “over 100 percent” in hitting its goals on persuading soldiers to stay in uniform and not retire.
Like other sectors in the job market, the military has married creativity with technology as it scrambles to keep up with recruitment goals and to train those who are already in.
Some recruiters for the Coast Guard, for instance, have held socially distanced meetings outside using a car, said Nelson Lim, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation who specializes in military personnel issues. “They are passing paperwork back and forth across the top,” Mr. Lim said.
The Marine Corps uses an app called Squad Bay that features a digital leader board for workouts as well as information about recruit training.
Yet military recruitment depends on a certain level of sales techniques — as well as an almost Spidey sense about potential service members — that is hard to emulate over FaceTime or Zoom.
“Our systematic recruiting process has always placed a premium on ‘kneecap to kneecap’ interaction between a recruiter and applicant,” said Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a communication strategy chief for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “So it has been challenging to replicate this physical assessment of those wanting to become Marines through tech mediums and limited personal interactions.”
Officials at the Air Force note that they are training fewer young men and women who have signed up but have not yet shipped off to basic training. The branch is sending 460 new trainees per week to Basic Military Training instead of the usual 600 to 800, said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force. “Where we put social distancing at basic training, you can only put about half as many in the training space,” she said.
Then there is the challenge of the medical exams, which are required of all military recruits. Some exam stations have been hit by the virus, and yet each service branch — and at times recruiting stations within them — seems to be using individual judgments on how and when exams can take place.
“I am being appreciative of the difficulty decision makers are struggling with,” Mr. Lim said. “What I worry about is that we don’t have any built-in learning processes” to figure out how a recruitment policy, especially involving the medical aspects, may not be working and end it. “Everything we know is based on old normal,” he said. “We don’t know what the future holds.”
Boot camps, like any communal living space, are places where illnesses and infections tend to spread and in the case of the coronavirus, such outbreaks can clog the pipeline yet again.
At the Marines’ Parris Island recruiting depot in South Carolina this spring, roughly four dozen recruits tested positive for the virus, stymying moves to bring in new ones. Roughly the same number from Bravo Company, First Training Battalion were found to have the virus at a training camp in San Diego. At Fort Benning,an Army post in Georgia, several cases were also reported this spring.
Marine recruits at Parris Island in February. Roughly four dozen recruits there tested positive for Covid-19 this spring. Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
“The services are trying to expand their testing programs in order to prevent this,” Ms. Bensahel said. “But they also have to be prepared for the real possibility that clustered outbreaks will cause parts of their training pipelines to shut down for considerable periods of time.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.