ARLINGTON, Va. – The Army National Guard exceeded its annual strength goals despite the COVID-19 global pandemic that created large-scale changes to nearly every aspect of daily life.
"It's been an unprecedented year in recruiting," said Army Lt. Col. Damon Hogsten, chief of the Army Guard's Strength Maintenance Division, who oversees recruiting efforts. "Prior to March, before COVID restrictions were implemented, recruiting was achieving about a 10% increase, month over month, in our accessions compared to the last two previous fiscal years."
Almost 43,000 people enlisted into the Army Guard during fiscal year 2020, or about 94% of the goal for initial enlistments, said Hogsten.
That number – combined with a 101% retention rate, a 13% attrition rate and more than 4,100 transitions from the active component to the Army Guard – allowed the Army Guard to meet its congressionally mandated end strength of 336,000 Soldiers, he said.
Enlistments in February were the most of any month in six years, since fiscal 2014, "so clearly we were on the glide path to achieve and exceed our enlisted accessions mission for the year," he said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"Essentially, it just brought a lot of the traditional recruiting efforts to a complete stop," Hogsten said. "March was impacted. April and May were the most greatly impacted – we only achieved about 73% of the monthly accession mission."
By June, however, those numbers had rebounded.
"In June, we reached about 97% of the mission," Hogsten said. "July was 95%."
Recruiting numbers dropped to 90% of the mission in August, but they were back up to 97% in September, the last month of the fiscal year.
"We finished September very, very strong," Hogsten said, adding he attributes the high monthly numbers to the recruiting force.
Many recruiters relied more on social media and other virtual and computer-based tools, showing great resilience and adaptability, said Army Sgt. Maj. Sean Gilligan, the Strength Maintenance Division senior enlisted adviser.
"It's the resilience of those recruiting and retention noncommissioned officers who are out there and the commands that empower them to think outside of the box," he said.
Recruiting commands in the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia also shared information and best practices on operating in a COVID-19 environment.
"The 54 recruiting battalions spoke to each other monthly," Gilligan said. "'This is what we're doing. This is how we're doing things. We have virtual calls that we do. We're holding appointments on our computers.'"
Army Guard recruiting efforts never stopped.
"We never took our foot off the gas," said Gilligan. "We continued to send Soldiers to training in a safe manner that mitigated the risks of COVID-19. No other service was able to do that continually through the crisis, and the crisis is still here."
Meeting recruiting numbers was one challenge; maintaining the recruiting force was another.
"The average recruiter stays a recruiter for about 1.6 years," said Hogsten. "We're averaging about 18% annual attrition in our recruiter population."
That meant training new recruiters couldn't stop, said Hogsten.
"COVID happened and, of course, you can't stop the churn of the recruiter," he said.
That meant transitioning the standard five-week recruiter training course from a resident course to a computer-based, distance-learning one.
"That started in May, and we've done three iterations for fiscal year 2020, which trained about 600 recruiters," said Hogsten. The distance learning course enabled the ARNG to train 853 recruiters in FY20, which is on track with a typical year.
The distance learning version of the course is still operating, said Hogsten, and may continue in some capacity post-pandemic.
"We're working closely with the Strength Maintenance Center schoolhouse to see what type of efficiencies we could potentially gain from what we're doing right now," he said. "I don't think they'll be totally distance learning forever, but I could see, potentially, a hybrid version of the course. That would potentially save efficiencies in money and travel."
As the first month of the fiscal year 2021 comes to a close, Hogsten said much of the previous year's momentum is carrying over.
"Looking at the numbers right now, and we look at them every day, I would say we're on pace, if not slightly exceeding, where we were last year at this time," he said. "I feel confident that we're going to be able to maintain that momentum with COVID still here."
But, recruiters are still facing many challenges.
"Some states are more open than others," said Hogsten. "It's still very, very challenging for the recruiting force."
But, Hogsten said, he has no doubt recruiters will continue to overcome obstacles in the current fiscal year.
The Army Guard's ability to meet end strength, even during a pandemic, speaks to the quality of the force itself, said Army Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army Guard.
"Despite all the challenges that we've been faced with, we met our end-strength mission as assigned by the Army," he said. "That's amazing. And it's a credit to the leadership that we have out in our states. It's a credit to the focus that we have on priorities of the organization, and end strength will always be a priority of the Army National Guard."