AURORA, Colorado -- Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas will be finishing out his three-year stint as the commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service this summer.
The service, after barely meeting its active-duty recruiting goals last year, announced this week it was projecting a 10% shortfall in the ranks and even more for the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. That's the equivalent of around 5,000 people, nearly the total of all the airmen at the 366th Fighter Wing stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
"It is a direct correlation to combat readiness," Thomas told Military.com in an interview at the Air and Space Force Association's Warfare Symposium on Wednesday. "So, it is absolutely critical that we close that gap."
But when pressed on how the service will solve a lot of these issues, Thomas told reporters during a media roundtable that there isn't one "silver bullet or game-changing strategy" that could reverse a wave of trends dissuading America's youth from serving.
Americans are seeing some of the lowest unemployment rates in more than 50 years. The Pentagon has released studies showing that only 23% of American youth are eligible to serve right now. The Air Force Recruiting Service said, overall, that less than 10% of the young population is interested in serving in the first place, and 50% can't name all the military service branches.
Many of those statistics are defining the Air Force's recruiting strategy for Generation Z, Americans born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. Appealing to this group is both a challenge and a necessity, Thomas said.
"This is a very unique generation," Thomas told Military.com. "Generation Z is not patriotic, in the traditional sense; they're also less trusting of government. … However, Generation Z, these young Americans, still want to have a purpose, they want to be able to make a difference, they want to do something that they feel is really important and meaningful. But we have to become part of that relevant conversation."
In response to the alarming recruiting statistics, the Air Force is tackling some of its most progressive policy reforms in years.
Earlier this month, the Department of the Air Force announced it is now allowing tattoos on the neck and hands, a policy change aimed at bringing younger talent into the ranks.
As first reported by Military.com earlier this year, the Department of the Air Force is also unveiling a new Body Composition Program, set to be implemented in April, which would use a waist-to-height ratio as a replacement for the old waist measurement portion of the physical assessment. It is designed to be less rigid than the former abdominal tape test while still setting a standard for body composition for the force.
Last year, the Air Force and Space Force announced a new pilot program that would grant certain highly qualified and otherwise perfect applicants who test positive for THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, a chance to retest and possibly join the ranks.
Thomas said, based on what the service is seeing with the pilot program, that program could become permanent.
"It's likely to, but the decision has not been made on that right now. We're seeing good results; it's still relatively small numbers," Thomas said. "This was targeted at not permanently preventing someone from service, in many cases, because of unintended exposure, or simply the environment that we're in where 38 of our 50 states have legalized marijuana."
Many Republican critics point to progressive policy changes such as this as examples of the military loosening its requirements and becoming "woke," a term that has become an ill-defined buzzword for many GOP commentators.
Thomas Spoehr, a former Army lieutenant general who is the director of the conservative-leaning Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in a September opinion piece that these progressive changes harm the military as a whole.
"The largest threat they see by far to our current military is the weakening of its fabric by radical progressive (or "woke") policies being imposed, not by a rising generation of slackers, but by the very leaders charged with ensuring their readiness," Spoehr wrote.
Thomas said these changes aren't curbing people from entering the service; instead, they're aimed at persuading more people to join.
"Are we lowering our standards? Absolutely not. I can tell you with confidence that we are maintaining a very high quality of airmen and Guardians coming into the department," Thomas said. "But we're making smart changes where we were unnecessarily preventing otherwise highly qualified people from coming into the service."
Other policies the Air Force is looking at include fast-tracking naturalization at basic military training so applicants can become American citizens faster, as well as reinstating a college loan repayment program in the near future.
Those efforts are also fully supported by senior leadership. Chief Master Sergeant JoAnne S. Bass, the senior enlisted leader for the Air Force, told Military.com during a media roundtable Tuesday that many of the existing policies have been in place for nearly three decades and are dated.
"We have antiquated policies from the '90s, you know, that may not be what we need for that force of the future," Bass told Military.com. "So, we need to figure out different ways to be able to assess some of the challenges."
Likewise, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown Jr. told Military.com that "young people only aspire to be what they see" and said he sent a letter out to wing commanders last month encouraging them to reopen their bases for public events to help engage with their local communities, noting that many bases understandably tightened their access and security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
All of those changes are a tall order, but Thomas said that, collectively, all those policies come down to being more likable, more seen and more understood by younger generations.
"We've got to do a better job of connecting and being relatable because, right now, we are not nearly relatable enough to most of Generation Z," Thomas said.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.