Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of reports on the lasting impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. military.
It's been just over a year since the Army ordered its recruiting stations to close temporarily and shifted to an all-virtual recruiting machine. And while U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or USAREC, met its goal for last fiscal year, recruiters are eager to hold large, in-person events as school systems open back up across the country, USAREC commander Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen told Military.com.
"I just spent a couple days out in Ohio, and so their school systems are opening up and [recruiters] are actually doing in-school events," he said. "They're setting up tables, and ... they're physically back doing recruiting operations in high schools.
"We are not necessarily completely out of COVID-19, but we are seeing parts of the country opening," Vereen added.
But like the rest of the Army, recruiting and retention officials acknowledge that the pandemic forced the service to learn how to thrive in the virtual world -- a skill that's not going away.
"Hey, look, COVID is absolutely bad, but because we have experienced this for a year, we have been, I think, at the forefront of how can we do things and still have the same effect," Vereen said. "We've done virtual roundtables, we've done virtual hiring fairs, we've done virtual job fairs ... and that's been a huge advantage, and we won't lose that. I think we're going to do a combination of that as we move forward."
Virtual platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom became the go-to tools for holding meetings with potential recruits and their parents. Recruiters also learned how to join existing virtual job fairs being held by unemployment agencies, schools or private companies. They connected with young people by accessing chat rooms on the job fair sites.
Recruiters on the Army eSports Team work late into the night, trying to connect with young people participating in "Call of Duty" and other esports gaming tournaments.
Army retention officers have also learned to do their jobs more efficiently in the virtual landscape, Sgt. Maj. Stuart Morgan, a senior Army career counselor, told Military.com.
"We have learned to operate in the virtual domain, to leverage digital signatures and [rely on] platforms such as MS Teams to actually conduct the reenlistment ceremony," Morgan said. "So not only have we learned to adapt to a new environment, it has actually injected some additional flexibility into the program that we will continue to use in the future."
Other services have also ramped up virtual recruiting operations. The Navy last year accelerated a plan to have "e-talent teams" at each of the service's more than two dozen talent acquisition groups.
The teams receive all the Navy's marketing and advertising leads, meaning those inquiring about the service on its recruiting website or phone line, which used to go straight to recruiters. The e-talent teams are also engaging and vetting those leads to ensure they're qualified and interested in military service, which frees up recruiters to do other tasks.
The Navy has also experimented with several social media influencers -- musicians, chefs, do-it-yourself builders, and others -- to help get its story out. Called the "Sailor Vs." series, the videos feature sailors doing similar jobs as popular social media influencers to highlight some of the more unexpected ratings the Navy has to offer.
Marine recruiters have experimented with virtual town halls, online career fairs and other safe ways to connect with young people in their communities.
But the virtual experience has not been without challenges, as the Army at times struggled to navigate the minefield of rules and norms for operating in the online world.
Last July, the Army temporarily stopped its esports team from streaming on Twitch in the wake of accusations that it had banned commenters for asking about war crimes.
The Army said commenters were spamming the team's social media pages asking questions like "what's your favorite war crime," which led recruiting officials to reexamine its policies for banning individuals.
Vereen views the episode as a learning experience about the inherent risks of social media.
"For us, it's a reality, it's a fact of life," he said. "But we have gotten comfortable, and we understand, look, everybody doesn't have the best interest of the military at hand. But there are a lot of folks that do. And that's the people that we really want to talk to."
With five months left in the fiscal year, both Army recruiting and retention officials say they are confident they will meet their goals.
The service's total retention mission is 56,300, and "we have completed 55,900," Morgan said.
"We continue to have very strong performance in the retention program," he added. "We are actually forecasting that we are going to complete our fiscal year objective by the middle of April."
Army officials, however, have been reluctant to discuss recruiting goals after the service missed its goal for fiscal 2018 by 6,500 soldiers.
Vereen said the Army has not yet set a formal recruiting goal for this fiscal year, nor has the service set an active end-strength goal beyond its current size of 486,000.
"Whatever number we would have today would be definitely different by the time we got to the end of the fiscal year," he said, describing how the number fluctuates every month.
"I think we're in a good position. ... We will definitely hold up our end of the bargain."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.