Air Force Touts Best Recruiting Numbers in Five Years as Pandemic Drags On

Air Force recruits take oath of enlistment.
Three recruits take their oath of enlistment at the Missing Man Formation to join the Air Force Reserve's 624th Regional Support Group based out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Nov. 30, 2016. (Master Sgt. Theanne Herrmann/U.S. Air Force photo)

The pandemic is still rattling the economy and American workers, but it hasn’t been bad for Air Force recruiting and retention, according to new figures released by the service Friday.

For the first time in five years, all three components of the Air Force – active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve – achieved both their recruiting goals and end strength, Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, said in a release about figures for the past fiscal year ending in September.

The service and its recruiters had their own struggles with shifting pandemic strategies and new technologies such as Zoom meetings, just like those faced by many civilian employers. But it still managed to pull in the recruits it wanted and keep airmen in uniform, with the reserves being a standout success story.

Fiscal 2021 marked the first time in five years the Air Force Reserve met its end-strength goal.

“Still handcuffed with social distancing, no access to large gatherings, and no entry into schools, all the while concerned for the recruiters’ well-being, [Reserve recruiters] charged on,” Col. Eugene Smith, commander of the Air Force Reserve’s 367th Recruiting Group, said in the release.

High active-duty retention rates -- likely driven by anxiety over leaving during a pandemic -- made this one of the toughest recruiting years in memory for the Reserve, Smith said.

Thomas said this shows the Air Force’s shift in recent years to a “total force recruiting” concept -- in which recruiters in different service components work more closely together to find the right fit for a potential recruit -- is working.

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The Air Force says the strategy makes it easier for recruiters to refer people to the Guard or Reserve if they wouldn’t be right for active duty -- for example, if they needed to stay near a hometown to help ailing family members.

The Air Force’s active duty saw extremely high retention last year as the pandemic gripped the country and battered the economy. New Guardsmen or reservists often come from the ranks of departing active-duty airmen.

The Guard and the Reserve had to “pedal exceptionally hard,” Thomas said.

The pandemic also forced long-overdue technology and communication upgrades such as virtual meetings software that ultimately made it safer and more efficient for recruiters to reach out to potential recruits, Thomas said during a Sept. 22 media roundtable.

“We didn’t even have click-to-sign technology for applications before,” Thomas said.

The regular Air Force added 26,641 enlisted airmen and 658 officers. Air Force special warfare recruiting also made its goals in one of the most difficult-to-fill career fields -- explosive ordnance disposal -- for the first time in a decade.

The reserves added about 7,300 enlisted and 1,500 officers. In the Guard, 755 officers and 7,869 enlisted airmen joined up. The Space Force also reached its recruiting goal of 404 Guardians, including 395 enlisted and nine officers.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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