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National Guard loosens up requirements and doubles down on marketing push in effort to bolster recruiting

The National Guard is doubling down on marketing efforts amid struggles to attract new recruits and maintain strength in the post-COVID job ecosystem.

"This is the most challenging recruiting environment the department offense has probably ever faced," said Air Force Col. Anthony Pasquale, chief of the Air National Guard Recruiting and Retention Division in a virtual press conference on Wednesday.

Pasquale said the Air National Guard is currently operating at about 96.7% of its authorized 108,400 personnel. The key summer recruitment months present an opportunity to bridge the gap.

Pasquale said the National Guard is easing rules on everything from tattoo policies to body mass index (BMI) requirements to broaden the field of potential recruits, but the competition from the private sector is fierce.

"To be honest with you, it's Wendy's. It's Carl's Jr. It's every single job that a young person can go up against because now they are offering the same incentives that we are offering," said Command Sgt. Maj. Marco Irenze of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion of the Nevada Army National Guard.

Tech Sgt. Stephen Graves is a recruiter for the 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria.

"Competition is any civilian market, any career field, especially when it comes to IT," Graves said. "Even fast food chains, where individuals don't have to go to a basic training, right, they don't have to come off of certain medications, or anything like that."

Graves says while the 182nd Airlift Wing is retaining about 97 % of its current personnel, recruiting remains a major challenge. Army Staff Sergeant Yoon Kim is a recruiter with the Woodstock Recruitment Sustainment Program in northern Illinois. She said offering flexibility is key, and said many potential recruits don't realize joining the National Guard is not an either-or proposition.

"The biggest local difficulties that we've had was like FedEx, and USPS, they are amazing employers with very similar benefits as we do. And then they realize, 'Oh, I'm not going to stop you from joining FedEx, we actually have a double pension that can work with you instead,'" Kim said.

Kim says the National Guard is emphasizing flexibility as a key feature to attract younger recruits. Graves agreed.

"We're looking at changing our schedules, from drill weekends, where the traditional is one weekend, a month, right, where now we can have some flexibility to work with the employers to allow these individuals to still have opportunities to make the money on the civilian side, and still serve in the Guard in that capacity," he said.

Pasquale said Congress approved an additional $50 million for National Guard marketing efforts this fiscal year, in addition to the usual $36 million.

"Obviously, in a post COVID environment, a lot of things have changed. So there's a lot of training that we work alongside our active component to advance our recruiting skills in marketing and advertising, along with processing new candidates and better ways to do business to lead the digital space," he said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.