Army Gambles on Virtual Tools Like Facetime to Make Up Recruiting Shortfall

Army recruiting and retention online
Sgt. First Class Jason Brautigam, (left) and Staff Sgt. Michael Perry, recruiting and retention noncommissioned officers, Michigan Army National Guard conduct a question and answer session via the internet due to social distancing restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dowagiac, Michigan, April 24, 2020. (U.S. Army photo/David Eichaker)

The U.S. Army will soon reopen the recruiting stations it was forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic, but its main efforts to find and enlist prospective soldiers will remain virtual, the general in charge of Army recruiting said.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth is once again in a fight to make up lost ground to meet the Army's recruiting goal by the end of the fiscal year, but he doesn't regret his recommendation to begin shuttering recruiting stations on March 18.

"We were the first service to come out of the stations and go 100% virtual; we called it early because ... I did not want to put our force and our force's families at risk," Muth told in an interview.

Shifting from traditional face-to-face recruiting, however, did not come without a cost, Muth admits.

Related: Army Shutters Recruiting Stations as 6 Recruits Show COVID-19 Symptoms at Basic Training

"Don't get me wrong, we lost a good three weeks to even a month. And so does that put us behind, yes. But do we think we can make it up? Yes," Muth said. "Things are really starting to pick up now in the virtual world and I am sure that we are getting better at it."

The Army plans to begin reopening its recruiting stations in mid-May, but the service will no longer depend on them like it did in the past, Muth said.

"We are going to utilize the stations, but are we going to be physically tied to the stations like we used to be? No," Muth said.

The decision to close the recruiting stations came as the Army had just begun to recover from a recruiting shortfall. After missing its goal for fiscal 2018 by 6,500 soldiers, the service surpassed its recruiting goal for fiscal 2019, aided by a broad recruiting strategy that targeted 22 major cities and began to embrace social media to connect with Generation Z.

The Army began its fiscal 2020 recruiting mission "about 4,000 or 5,000 ahead," Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told defense reporters at an April 30 Pentagon briefing.

"There is a slight dip, but so far our recruiters think they are going to make that up."

Currently, the Army is targeting a 485,000 end-strength for the active force, but the recruiting mission is only part of that number.

"With Recruiting Command, we always give a much higher mission than we actually think we need, because we always plan for the worst case: if our attrition was higher. So we don't get to the end of the year and find out that attrition was much higher than we expected," McConville said. "And then as we get through the year, we start to look at it and we get a sense of who is staying or who is going."

Retaining More Soldiers

And it's likely that the effects of the novel coronavirus on the economy and unemployment are causing more and more soldiers to stay in the Army, officials say.

"We have seen an increase in retention; we are over 100 percent," Sgt. Major of the Army Michael Grinston said, explaining that the Army recently decided to increase its retention goal by 2,000 soldiers.

"So, I said can we get 2,000 more quality soldiers that were going to [separate] to stay, and two weeks ago we had already had 500."

The Army met its original retention goal of 50,200 by early March and was soon at 51,000 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States, Sgt. Maj. Stuart Morgan, senior Army career counselor told

"Some of the opportunities that our soldiers thought they were moving into on the outside -- some of those opportunities started to disappear whether that be employment opportunities or even going to school," Morgan said.

Many Army offices that are needed to clear soldiers out of the Army have closed, forcing many officials to work at home, which has complicated the process, Morgan said.

About three weeks ago, the Army then decided to increase its retention goal by 2,000 soldiers out of a pool of 8,000 that were eligible for reenlistment, Morgan said.

"We have already ... retained an additional 849 soldiers against that 2K goal," Morgan said. "When we accomplish this goal that would put us at ... right around 53,000 that we retain."

Meanwhile, Grinston said "virtual recruiting is actually going well; we are learning as we go through this."

"I think what really helped is we kind of gravitated to this digital side of recruiting starting when ... I came on board in July of 2018," added Muth, who is set to leave the command in mid-July.

"If we were not positioned where we were, we would still be in discovery, learning right now eight weeks into it, and we are not."

Recruiting Through the Night

Army Recruiters are now getting potential recruits through online job-search sites.

"What we are finding is that there is a greater interest on Indeed and on Google advertising and I would just say generally on the job sites and we are finding that they are coming to us," Muth said.

Recruiters are also working at night to reach youth participating in Call of Duty and other eSports gaming tournaments, he said.

"What is really getting us a ton of leads is, we have a lot of recruiters doing what we call reverse cycle, so they are recruiting at night from 2200 to 0200," Muth said. "Because they are going in and joining these different eSports tournaments -- whether it's Call of Duty, League of Legends, Apex Legends, Fortnight, Overwatch -- and you meet people and you go in there and you just start talking."

The Army has also changed some policies that required a face-to-face meeting at the recruiting station to start initial paperwork; to reserve a military occupational specialty; and to schedule a tentative shipping date to Basic Combat Training.

"For example, they used to have to come into the recruiting station because you would have to witness the signature of the application; we got authorization to witness that signature over Facetime," Muth said.

"We are allowed to do the interview over Facetime now, because it used to be you couldn't do that you had to do it face-to-face."

By mid-May, Muth predicts the command will be in roughly the same spot it was last May.

"I think we will be behind by about 3,000 ... last year we were 2,800 shy when we came out of May," Muth said. "This is unprecedented; there are no models that we have in the 47 years of United States Army Recruiting that we have a model to go to -- and we use models all the time to anticipate what the requirements are."

The Army still hasn't zeroed in on an exact recruiting goal; it's too early, Muth said.

"Last year, it was 68,000, so the mechanisms are in place to go for something like that," Muth said. "At one point in the year, they were talking about 69,000 ... I just think it is going to be lower just because retention is definitely on the increase."

"I feel very confident in the recruiters that when we give them this mission, they are going to be able to step up to the plate, and they are going to work night and day until we meet our number requirement."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

Read More: Army Surpasses Recruiting Goal, Attracts More Women to Sign Up

Story Continues