The Air Force was able to meet its recruiting goal in 2020, but the historic closures of schools across the country during the coronavirus pandemic has leaders bracing for challenges in meeting next year's mark.
Recruiting will become "increasingly difficult" without access to public spaces, Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr., Air Force Recruiting Service's commander, told reporters Monday. High schools, one of the top spots recruiters connect with prospective enlistees, remain closed across the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"Right now, the trend is in the wrong direction," Thomas said of recruiting numbers. "I'm confident that we will be able to find ways to meet our goals in '21 with qualified recruits, but it's going to be harder."
Recruiters across the military have significantly changed the way they reach prospective recruits during the global pandemic. In the spring, many recruiting stations were suddenly closed. Sporting events or community gatherings remain significantly scaled back or canceled.
The issue of whether schools should be opened during the pandemic has prompted national debate, with President Donald Trump calling on states to resume in-person learning while most have left the decisions up to local leaders. Military recruiters have long relied on high schools to recruit new enlistees, including the relationships they build with teachers, coaches and other educators.
Now ,recruiters are making most of their connections digitally or by phone. But those efforts have proven more time-consuming, expensive and, likely, ultimately less fruitful, Thomas said during the Air Force Association's annual meeting.
"The studies that we've done show that, with face-to-face recruiting, when somebody is actually able to talk to a living, breathing, sharp Air Force [noncommissioned officer] out there, we can convert what we call leads to recruits at about an 8:1 ratio," he said. "When we do this virtually and digitally, it's about a 30:1 ratio."
The Air Force originally wanted to recruit more than 30,000 new personnel in 2020. Service leaders reduced that to 27,611 after the pandemic hit, said Leslie Brown, a Recruiting Service spokeswoman, citing higher-than-expected retention levels.
The service met its 2020 recruitment goal, but Thomas said doing the same in 2021 could be a challenge. The Air Force Recruiting Service wants to sign up 30,429 new personnel -- including 312 for the Space Force -- in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
With so many schools across the country still closed, Thomas said the Air Force is planning for continued in-person recruiting challenges in 2021.
"We're moving to spend almost 80% of our marketing budget on digital engagement -- basically, engaging people online," he said. "... We're continuing to look for ways to engage in the classroom and online, being able to do virtual school visits, looking for a variety of ways to provide value to educators and schools and other virtual forums to bring in recruits."