The Recruiting and Retention Problems Continue

June 1, 2000

“We are approaching this challenge with a combat mentality, as though it were a war.”

Carol A. DiBattiste, the undersecretary of the Air Force, was referring to the challenge of turning around USAF’s worrisome recruiting and retention rates before they cripple the service’s combat readiness.

“We’ve been through these problems before,” said the Air Force leader, who served in recruiting both as an enlisted member and an officer before retiring in 1991. “The trouble this time is that we have retention and recruiting problems hitting us at the same time.”

To combat the losses, USAF is beefing up its recruiting forces, increasing enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, buying more advertising, and appealing to Congress and the civilian community for help.

There is more to come. Following a recruiting summit last October and a retention summit in January, the Air Force set up a Recruiting and Retention Task Force. It will work on the more than 200 initiatives generated at the two summits and develop still more ideas.

Brig. Gen. Paul M. Hankins, deputy director of USAF’s Legislative Liaison Office, is the task force commander. Hankins compares the effort to a combat operation.

“One of the things you do when you go to war is deploy people to meet the immediate threat,” said Hankins, “so we are going to deploy people who have been recruiters or who are working in [Air Force] Recruiting Service headquarters and various staffs. We’re going to TDY them out [send them on Temporary Duty] to the field for the next 120 days to help our recruiters. At the same time, we’re working hard on an initiative to [increase] our recruiter force by a significant amount by the end of September so that once the TDY force goes away, we’re up to the number we think we need to do a good job next year.”

More Than Better Recruiting

However, said DiBattiste, just bringing in more people is not the whole solution.

“Recruiting alone cannot address the challenges,” she said. “We also have to arrest the decline in retention. The deficit in middle skill levels is what’s hurting. It’s when our mid-level pilots leave and our mid-level navigators leave and, even more, when our five- or seven-level enlisted members leave. Recruiting a new three level doesn’t give us back that five- or seven-level member for five to eight years.”

One difficulty facing the Air Force is that it has just completed the largest sustained drawdown in its 53-year history and is at its lowest strength since the late 1940s. At the same time, it is being tasked with contingency operations, peacekeeping missions, and humanitarian deployments on a scale unprecedented in peacetime. Taking on added responsibilities with fewer people has stressed both active duty and reserve forces and has many members looking longingly at 9-to-5 civilian jobs.

Through the decade-long drawdown, the service cut accessions and accelerated losses. When the cuts ended, officials faced the daunting task of retaining the remaining members, replacing losses, and rebuilding experience levels.

Recruiting and retention statistics for 1999 show that the rejuvenation process is going too slowly. The Air Force’s 1999 goal was to attract 33,800 new enlisted members, but it recruited only 32,068. Despite recent surges, the outlook for 2000 is not much brighter. The service is aiming for 34,000 enlistees this year, but, so far, the per-month average is not large enough for the Air Force to predict it will make the goal.

Equally worrisome, enlisted retention has fallen off. USAF’s aim is to retain 55 percent of first termers, 75 percent of second termers, and 95 percent of career enlisted troops. For 1999, however, the first-term rate fell to 49 percent, second-term rate to 69 percent, and career rate to 91 percent.

Even though the January and February 2000 rates (the most recent for which data are available) were higher than last year’s results for the same months, cumulative figures still fell short of goals for this point in the fiscal year.

Among officers, the picture also is discouraging, particularly in the retention area. Air Force uses a cumulative continuation rate to show how many officers who enter their fourth year of service (sixth year for rated officers) will complete 11 or 14 years. In 1995, the cumulative continuation rate for rated officers climbed above 85 percent. By 1999, however, it was down to 41 percent for pilots and 62 percent for navigators. The rate for nonrated operations officers was at 54 percent in 1995, went up the next year to 62 percent, and fell to 56 percent in 1999. For mission support officers the rate dropped from 51 percent in 1995 to 44 percent in 1999.

Far-Term Effects

Effects of these low recruiting and retention rates will persist well into the future. The service depends on healthy enlisted accession rates to provide an adequate base for future retention. Among officers, the need is even more critical because of the long lead time needed to recruit and, for rated officers, the time to train them.

During the drawdown, the service reduced recruiting for enlisted ranks and restricted enrollment into its main officer training programs. Enlistments and officer enrollments have since been increased, but it will take time to make up the shortfalls that developed over the 1990s.

The Air Force has trouble attracting potential airmen and officer candidates, particularly in the engineering, scientific, and medical fields. Maintaining a pool of rated officers is even more difficult. So far, USAF is having no problem accessing rated trainees, DiBattiste said, but retaining experienced fliers is a continuing difficulty.

A major cause of the service’s problems is the improved economy, the same factor that has the civilian world euphoric.

“When we have a booming economy,” said DiBattiste, “it puts extra pressure on the Air Force, both to recruit and to retain. It pulls people away from the service and creates recruiting difficulties because young people have many more opportunities.”

The Air Force is moving on several fronts to combat the problems. In the retention area, it is offering more bonuses and special pays and moving to improve promotion rates. It is eliminating job-reservation constraints that have barred enlisted troops in some skills from re-enlisting and waiving some of the high-year-of-tenure restrictions that force experienced but unpromoted members to retire.

These moves are in addition to the ongoing efforts to improve the quality of life for all members by raising pay, reducing the stress of daily operations (optempo), and upgrading health care, housing, family programs, retirement benefits, and education opportunities.

In recruiting, USAF is beefing up its sales effort and trying to increase its visibility in the civilian world by moves such as adding more Air Force Junior ROTC units and building bridges to business, industry, and civic organizations.

It also is making enlistment more attractive. “We’ve taken a number of restrictions off,” said Hankins.

“We’re also going to look at things such as a college loan repayment program like ones the Army and Navy offer and at paying additional bonus money for people who come in during the months where we need them most, in the April and May time frame.”

While the task force looks for new solutions, the Pentagon is hoping to win additional inducements from Congress.

The new 2001 budget proposal, for example, includes funds to continue incremental pay raises. Long range, DoD wants money to reduce and ultimately eliminate members’ out-of-pocket expenses for off-base housing and to reform the pay table. Other efforts are aimed at improving the Tricare health plan and giving members more counseling on managing their finances.

Beyond the money problems and the recruiter shortages, however, the Air Force sees a need to change public perceptions of the military itself.

Trusted, but Not Attractive

“Recent surveys have shown that the military is the most trusted institution in the country,” DiBattiste said. “At the same time, however, young peoples’ inclination to come into the military has declined.”

One study showed that 17 percent of young men considered joining the Air Force in 1989, but the figure dropped to about 12 percent from 1994 through 1999.

“They have so many choices now and so many opportunities,” said DiBattiste, referring to recruiting-age young persons. “We also have to let them know that we are hiring. I was at Columbia University recently, talking to educators, and they thought that, because we have been downsizing, we aren’t taking people.”

Hankins echoed her concern.

“The people in the community-the scout masters, church leaders, and the adults in the YMCA and Boys Clubs who were our role models 20 years ago or 30 years ago-usually had some military experience from serving in World War II or the Korean War,” said Hankins. “They just aren’t there any more. The same is true in Congress. The percentage who have ever had any contact with the military is decreasing every year.

“That’s a problem for the military. … Long term, our biggest problem probably is that of keeping the mission in the public eye.”

The undersecretary contends that the Air Force has much to offer today’s youth. “People want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” she said. “They like the idea of learning a skill and contributing to a mission that means something for our country. Studies at DoD are showing that even though the propensity to enlist has dropped, these young people are not the same as their parents who grew up in the Vietnam era. They are more appreciative and patriotic, and we need to find those people and attract them to the Air Force.


“They tell us, too, that they are getting something out of service that they can’t find in today’s civilian world. In January, I swore in the first two [USAF] recruits of the millennium, and I went to Lackland [AFB, Texas] six weeks later to see them graduate. I asked them what they got out of basic training, and the first thing both said was, ‘Discipline. It taught us discipline that we will have for the rest of our lives.’ And they liked that.”

The Scourge of Optempo

If patriotism will draw more members into the force, however, the undersecretary concedes that keeping them is another problem. “Ops tempo is at the top of the list of reasons to get out,” she said. “That’s why Air Force implemented the Expeditionary Aerospace Force.”

The EAF, now being implemented throughout the Air Force, is designed to put combat forces together in packages to meet contingency requirements and give people predictability and stability, which they say they need to consider staying in the force.

“Although it is too early to tell, we think it is going to make a difference in their lives,” said DiBattiste. “We are asking people to give it 18 to 24 months to see if it really reaps the benefits that we think it will for them.”

If optempo is causing retention problems, it apparently is not causing potential recruits to shy away from the service.

“We are not getting feedback from our recruiters that this is a major issue,” said Hankins. “Recruits are told about the tempo. They learn about it in Warrior Week in enlisted basic training and in the officer Aerospace Basic Course. They know we don’t have the overseas bases that we had during the Cold War and that we’re lean and mean.

“The young people coming in still tell us that the main reasons they are joining are the skills, the benefits, and the education benefits. We tell them, ‘You’ll get your education but remember, now we have a very high optempo. The mission comes first. You’ll still satisfy your education goals, but it may not be at the speed you originally planned.’ “

To make good on the education promise, USAF will continue to offer tuition assistance, the Community College of the Air Force, and GI Bill benefits. And for deployed members who can’t train on base or campus, it is continuing to develop interactive distance-learning programs.

Getting USAF’s message to the country will be expensive, officials concede. The service planned to bring its recruiting force up to full strength by mid-year. By the end of this fiscal year, it plans to add 300 more recruiters, for a total of 1,450. The goal is 2,000 recruiters, twice the number of a year ago, by June 2001.

“It’s going to strain the force to pull these recruiters from other career fields where they are needed,” DiBattiste said, “but we believe that the investment now will fix us for the future. We have to turn this thing around and we will.”

Just adding to the sales force and advertising budget may not be enough to work a lasting solution, officials say.

In February, Lt. Gen. Donald L. Peterson, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel, “I think the propensity to join is down, and I’d say that’s certainly because of the footprint we have around America. We’ve reduced our force here by about 40 percent. Our CONUS bases are down 25 percent. Our overseas bases are down 65 percent. We don’t have the influencers out there that we had. If you take the World War II veterans out, only about 6 percent of our population has served in the military.”


He added, “It’s not that our young people don’t like the military, don’t want to be a part of it. It’s just difficult for them to see it. They’re not exposed to it.”

At the same hearing, SSgt. Reggie Hamilton, a USAF recruiter in Georgia, cited some of the difficulties he has had trying to reach high school students. They range from being denied lists of students to being thwarted by counselors with other agendas. “The schools are graded on how many of their kids go off to college,” Hamilton said, “so a lot of the counselors will hold us back from going in because they are trying to push their kids to go to schools and colleges.”

Hankins agreed that gaining access to schools is a major concern for all services. He said, “We’re sending letters to every member of Congress to tell them what schools in their states or districts don’t allow recruiters access to the school or provide student directories so they can contact students and provide them information about the armed services. We need access, and young people ought to be able at least to have the opportunity to get information.

“There also is some movement on the Hill to do something similar to what they did for ROTC a few years ago, when they considered cutting federal funds to schools that don’t allow access. We’re not there yet but, long term, there may be instances where Congress says, ‘If you let other people come in and recruit at your school, you have to let the military come in.’ “

The remedy, said DiBattiste, is to raise public awareness of what the service has to offer. Toward that end, the Air Force has mounted a major promotional effort among educators, community leaders, and industry officials.

Internally, USAF is asking military members, civilian employees, retirees, and veterans to talk up the service in the private sector. It has appealed to military associations and veterans groups to lend a hand. It has beefed up its ad campaign to put USAF recruiting in prime time, and it has increased its exposure on the Internet.

Early this year, the service went on the road with another weapon in the recruiting war, a high-tech exhibit dubbed “The Air Force Experience.” Mounted on two customized 18-wheelers, the road show includes an F-16 fighter, giant-screen video shows, and simulators on which visitors can “fly” make-believe combat missions.

Some Encouragement

Officials have their antennae out for signs of improvement in the manpower picture and, in recent months, have felt some encouragement. In a March interview, DiBattiste said, “In retention, we’ve seen positive trends now for two months in a row, and in recruiting, we have positive trends in our delayed-enlistment program, which banks applicants for future enlistment.

“Also very important is prior-service recruiting. Last year, we brought back 600 prior service. We’ve raised our objective for this year and we’re offering bonuses to bring them back. So far, we’re making our objectives and that really helps because we bring back people at the five and seven levels, where they need very little training to get back on the job.”

Hankins said this effort to lure back former members is intensifying. “We intend to take back as many prior-service people as we can,” he said. “We’re going to remove all restrictions, too, and we’re considering opening up enlistments to prior-service folks from other services who have skills we can use. In the past we have not done that.”

The undersecretary is quick to admit, however, that she is not breathing easy yet. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said, “but we have to keep focused.”

She cited several areas in which the Air Force is pushing for further improvements. One effort is aimed at mending some features of the Tricare medical program and expanding pharmacy benefits. Another push is to continue replacing barracks with private dorm rooms and improve family housing. “In other areas of infrastructure, we’re just doing the bare minimum to maintain real property, but in housing and dorms, we are spending some money.”

On the personnel front, the service is applying the recent 4.8 percent pay raise and hoping for more. DiBattiste said, “Is the 4.8 percent pay raise enough? No.

“Congress also ruled that for the next five years, the raises are going to be 0.5 percent above the civilian [employment] cost index. Retirement pay is back where it should be. That’s all good, but we have to do even better because the bottom line is that our people are being offered a lot on the outside.”

The Long Haul

Nor does DiBattiste want the effort to stop with the first signs of a turnaround. “We don’t want this to be a quick fix and then five years later find that we’re back in trouble,” she said. “The drawdown happened too fast and, depending on who you talk to, too much. It hurt us most in the shaping we had to do as we drew down, and we are paying the price, now. We recognize that and we’re doing everything we can to assure that doesn’t happen again.”

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Surge in Junior ROTC,” appeared in the April 2000 issue.