They're not social media stars like the Kardashians, but the U.S. Air Force has its own "influencers" working to engage the next generation of airmen, according to the service's head of recruiting.
In the past year, the Air Force has moved to a largely digital recruitment effort, including having one-on-one virtual meet-and-greets with recruiters and social media campaigns, an endeavor made more relevant by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is even promoting airmen who attract eyeballs to their Facebook or Instagram accounts, according to Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas, head of the Air Force Recruiting Service, or AFRS, part of Air Education and Training Command.
"They're not paid or sponsored," Thomas said in a recent interview with Military.com. "It's mostly people who are just passionate about what they do, passionate about being an airman and specifically passionate about helping increase the diversity in our ranks."
AFRS stressed that it's not branding these airmen as "influencers" per se because many of their followers are already active or former military members. "That's not our target demographic," said spokeswoman Leslie Brown.
But their platforms give the recruiting service a taste of how it can use new ways to connect with prospective recruits by telling the service's story from one airman's point of view.
Some former military members have popular social media accounts. John "Rain" Waters, a retired major who was most recently the commander of the F-16V Viper demo team, has amassed nearly 120,000 followers on Instagram with his dazzling aerial videos.
And at least one of the popular accounts belongs to an actual recruiter: Tech. Sgt. Kelvin Boyington, aka "Sergeant B."
Stationed in Ohio, Boyington creates "his own videos where he plays multiple characters," Thomas said. "He dances; he does skits. I mean, he is super energetic in the way he's going out trying to attract people to the Air Force."
The recruiting service also has its "Detachment 1" unit, established in 2018 and headed by Lt. Col. Annie Driscoll, an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter pilot.
"Her whole mission is to be able to help increase diversity and rated career fields," Thomas said, referring to the Air Force pilot community.
Driscoll and her team have held webinars with more than 1,000 participants each, and have their own social media program showcasing how potential aviators can earn their wings. Detachment 1 also works with aerospace organizations and nonprofits such as Women in Aviation to increase the public's exposure to Air Force careers.
"They're sharing, they're posting, you know, they're building that network," Thomas said.
The AFRS may start an "Airman Ambassador'' program this year to highlight these airmen, Brown said. The goal is to have social media-savvy airmen host online chats or mentorship events to discuss their day-to-day service experience, she added.
Over the last few years, recruiters have had to get creative to tailor their messages to young people with different priorities and means of communication than their predecessors. As a result, niche marketing efforts are on the rise.
Air Force recruiters have gone to CrossFit competitions seeking aspiring special warfare candidates, online gaming forums to attract cyber experts, and even the FIRST Robotics Competition to woo those interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs, Thomas said.
"More and more and more, we have moved marketing to the local squadron-level recruiting office level to go get after that market," he said.
But with COVID-19, "[the] majority of our marketing effort has moved to online digital marketing," Thomas said, adding that it's unlikely the service will turn away from its heavy online presence.
"[It] allows us to be much more specific and much more niche [for] the different targets that we're hitting, so we're able to have a whole different suite and variety of the types of ads [we share]," he said.
But the Air Force isn't focusing on online gaming as heavily as its service counterparts, Thomas said -- an area where some have gotten into hot water.
Over the summer, the Army's esports team -- part of Army Recruiting Command -- received intense attention to its correspondence with potential recruits on Twitch, a popular game-streaming app. The team took a five-week pause following accusations that it was banning people from its channel, which some experts said violated users' First Amendment rights.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., questioned why the Army even uses the method to court "impressionable young people" and introduced legislation to forbid the practice.
The Air Force has sponsored a few e-gaming events, Thomas said, with a handful of airmen participating in tournaments. However, the recruiting service does not have a dedicated team, he added.
In 2018, then-Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast said the Air Force was working on its own aviation-themed game. Kwast, then commander of AETC and since retired, said the online game -- geared toward high school kids -- could be played anonymously, with the Air Force watching the player test his or her skills without violating their privacy.
"We are doing some different gaming prototypes right now," Thomas said, adding there's nothing available yet.
In the last two years, the AFRS has gone to a "Total Force" approach, Thomas added, bringing recruiting for the active-duty, reserve and Guard components under one umbrella.
Previously, "you could go to a job fair and have different tables set up ... and those Air Force recruiters would not even know the others were there," Thomas said. "Frankly, it sowed confusion. And it created an unhealthy competition amongst our own recruiters. So today, we have truly integrated all of the components of the Air Force into one recruiting service."
The Air Force reduced its active-duty recruitment goal from roughly 29,200 to 26,300 over the past year due to COVID-19, which prompted high retention rates.
In December, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said the Air Force experienced its highest service member retention rate in two decades, closing out fiscal 2020 well over its 333,700 goal. As a result, the service is working to voluntarily transfer some airmen into other specialties or the Air Force Reserve, he told reporters.
Thomas said he foresees special warfare; technical, STEM-related jobs; and aviation fields to remain "hot" in 2021.
"There's [also] a lot of excitement about Space Force," he said. "One of the challenges that we're working through is it's still a small, agile force so we will only be bringing in about 312 enlisted space professionals a year. To give you a sense of scope -- 312 a year, well, we bring in about 40,000 airmen a year. So the scale is still limited."
In the coming months, Thomas wants to make sure the Air Force assigns people into the jobs where they can best thrive.
While recruiting messages are becoming increasingly customized to people's specific interests, the AFRS shouldn't assign airmen to specialties before they can make a competent decision about their career choice, he said, adding that the Air Force wants young people to keep their options open.
"This is about having a conversation," he explained.
The question-answer portion of a recruitment event should look something like, "Would you like to serve full time? Would you like to serve part time? Would you like to serve in uniform? Or not in uniform? Would you like to stay close to your home? Or would you like to have assignments around the world?" Thomas said.
"We want [airmen] to have a realistic expectation of what they will do in our Air Force so that when they come in, there's not a mismatch of what they thought they were going to be doing," he said. "Right now, across our recruiting enterprise, optimism is high. We're going to continue to be able to bring people in, and we're going to continue to be able to meet goals in 2021."