Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr. is the commander, Air Force Recruiting Service, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
The Air Force Recruiting Service leads the Department of the Air Force’s mission to inspire, engage and recruit the next generation of Airmen and Space Professionals. The command comprises more than 3,000 Airmen and civilians and approximately 1,200 recruiting offices across the U.S. and abroad. Thomas is responsible for all enlisted accessions and a variety of officer accession programs.
AFRS integrates with its Total Force partners to sustain the regular Air Force and Space Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard and manages all strategic marketing for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. In total, AFRS accesses more than 31,000 members each year.
In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas and his command have the daunting task of finding the best and brightest civilians to enlist in the Air Force or Space Force. At the same time, Air Force recruiters are currently responsible for finding candidates for both services.
Then, through a revamped, socially distanced basic military training, the Air Force builds them into the next generation of Airmen and the first generation of Space Professionals.
In this interview with Airman magazine, Thomas discusses the need for, and benefits of, diversity within the force, the challenges of recruiting during a pandemic and the integration of recruiting across the Total Force ― from Air National Guard to ROTC and civilian to uniform military.
Airman magazine: Maj. Gen. Thomas, thank you so much for speaking with us. Tell me about the mission of the Air Force Recruiting Service?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: I’ve been here about six months as commander, and I just feel like I won the jackpot — what a tremendous command and what a dynamic organization to be part of.
I think there’s few places in the Air Force that rival the incredible sense of mission; why we’re here and what we do. We’re here to change lives and we’re here to make sure the next generation of Airmen and Space Professionals are the most capable that we could possibly bring in. It’s all about the future of our services and national security.
I remember as a Colonel, I went to (Kunsan Air Base, South Korea,) for the first time. I was with the Wolfpack in the base theater and the wing commander yelled out, “Wolfpack, what’s your mission?” In this great chorus they all responded in unison what their mission was, “defend the base, take the fight North and accept follow on forces.” They all did it with fervor. They were so proud and identified with their mission. I’ve found in the short time that I’ve been in recruiting, that’s the passion that’s with our recruiters, with our staff, with our whole team that knows the “Air Force starts here.” The Air Force and Space Force of tomorrow, the Air Force getting ready to fight the next war, absolutely depends on our ability to bring in America’s best and brightest.
Airman magazine: Would you explain the hierarchy and how AFRS fits in the chain and relates to Air Force Headquarters and Air Education and Training Command?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Sure. Air Force Recruiting Service’s headquarters is in San Antonio, Texas, at Randolph Air Force Base. We’ve got about 3,000-plus Total Force recruiters from Tokyo to Ramstein (Germany). We work for the commander of Air Education and Training Command, who reports to the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force.
Airman magazine: So given that mission, is there a current overarching AFRS strategy that you could define for us?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Absolutely, Joe. There’s a few things about our strategy that are key.
One of them is driving and improving what we call “smart operations.” That’s about everything from big data and AI analytics to diversity. Then, one of the other key points is furthering Total Force recruiting that my predecessor and good friend, Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, began.
You know, just a couple of years ago, you could go to a job fair, an air show, a public event and largely what you would find is very independent and separate recruiting entities representing the Air Force. You might have the Air Force Academy on one side of the auditorium or the airfield, you might have the Air Force ROTC somewhere. The Reserve, the Guard, the active duty, the Air Force, civilian service, all acting independently.
If you walked up to the wrong booth and said, “I want to join the U.S. Air Force and I want to do this or that”, they very likely may have said, “sorry, we can’t help you, go to the yellow pages or go to Google and maybe you can find somebody in that part of the Air Force who can help you with that”.
Now, with Total Force recruiting, the idea is that we’re operating as one big team. We’re now either in the same chain of command or we’re talking to each other and collaborating. In some cases we’ve merged organizations so that when any young American walks up to a recruiting station, or a booth, or a recruiter at an air show or a high school, and they say, “I want to join the Air Force,” no matter what part of the Air Force they want to be in, that recruiter is going to say, “you’ve come to the right place, we can help you.”
Whether they want to serve full time, part time, in uniform, out of uniform as a civilian, if they want to serve close to their hometown, if they want to see the world, there’s a lot of ways to serve in the Air Force. We just were not driving a cohesive and collaborative unity of effort. Now, under Total Force recruiting, we’re just doing what makes sense. We’re working on a Total Force ad campaign called “moments.” The idea is to communicate that some give their weekends. Some give their entire lives.
All we need are the moments of courage, of resilience and ingenuity, devotion, integrity, selflessness and excellence. Full time, part time, in or out of uniform; all we need is the best of you. How many moments can you give?
Airman magazine: I would imagine that having that cohesiveness across the various components of the Air Force allows those recruiters to more easily attract STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent.
Maj. Gen. Thomas: That’s absolutely right. If somebody walks into a recruiting station and for some reason they may not meet active duty requirements — it could be childhood asthma, it could be a number of things — they may still be a high quality recruit for us in the Air Force. Whether it’s in cyber operations, science, analysis, engineering, going to work for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (Ohio); with Total Force recruiting, we can be a lot smarter about the way we market, identify, recruit and then funnel that talent to the place that recruit can serve our Air Force in the best way.
Airman magazine: So you mentioned the word diversity and I’m going to play devil’s advocate, why is diversity such a big priority? What is it that makes the Air Force better by having people from different ethnic, cultural, racial, educational backgrounds?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: I’ve thought about diversity, in some manner, most of my career. But as I got ready to come into recruiting service and when I was the Air Force’s communicator at the air staff, I thought a lot about diversity.
The question that you ask, “why diversity,” is the right question. And frankly, not everyone agrees that this is something that should be a factor as we build tomorrow’s Air Force and Space Force. I also think there’s a lot of times people are going to hear things they think sound like a company answer, like political correctness. But at AFRS, we are very pragmatic about how we tackle this challenge. At the end of the day, recruiting must be about getting the “best athletes” on the team. Fighting and winning wars is our job and we need the best warfighters in order to do that. But not all parts of the nation can see themselves wearing our jersey, if you will, and they’re not showing up for tryouts. So, recruiting for diversity is really about attracting the very best to join our team.
If we’re recruiting really well in the southern smile, as we call it across the southern states; if we’re recruiting really well out of one socioeconomic group or one demographic, but we’re not reaching these untapped areas of American talent, we’re not really getting the best and brightest.
While I’m from Texas A&M, one of the coaches that I admire the most is Nick Saban from Alabama. That coach knows how to recruit a team. That coach knows how to go after talent, he knows how to scout. He knows the right fishing holes to go to, and Nick Saban is not going to go for anything, but the very best athlete to come and play for the Crimson Tide.
Why should we accept anything less as America’s Air and Space Forces? We should go after the best, the brightest recruits out there across America. If we’re not diverse, then it’s statistically improbable that we’re doing that.
Another important reason that I believe diversity is very important is that we’re a military serving in a democracy and we rise or fall on public support; the acceptance, the awareness and the support that our American people give us. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” The understanding within the American public of the Air Force and the military at large is much more tenuous, much more fragile than in years’ past. If we don’t reflect the society which we serve;, our ability to really enjoy the full support of the American people and represent American people across the board, is going to be hindered and it will be significantly hindered. But, all this in hinges on bringing in the best.
Airman magazine: So let me ask you the tough question. You’re seeing data on diversity and recruiting. How’s the Air Force doing?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: On the enlisted side, I would say we’re doing relatively well, but we still have room for improvement. We’re meeting or exceeding every diversity target that we have for each demographic.
Our African American Airmen are almost double the qualified population in America right now, however, our Asian American population is only about half of that qualified population.
A qualified population are those who can meet the basic qualifications to come into the Air Force, which for Asian Americans is about 9.1%, but we’re only recruiting about half of that which is about 4.3%. How do we do better? How do we attract high quality Asian American recruits to come join the team so we do reflect society more closely than we do today?
However, our officer ranks, specifically in our pilots and rated aircrew, we still have a lot of work to do. We’ve not close to reflecting the country, in drawing the best from all of America. It will take time to get there but the progress must be swifter. Rated diversity, I believe, is the key to creating a service that truly is a warfighting organization that attracts and retains the most capable Airmen and Space Professionals.
Airman magazine: Have you gotten any answers to the question you just posed? Are there any ideas that have moved forward to engage that community more?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Yeah, we’re doing a few things.
One of the things we did this summer is we established diversity targets. It’s a target, I want to be very clear. It’s not a quota. We’re not grading or assessing each individual recruiter in the field against certain numbers of certain demographics they need to bring in. However, at the headquarters level, the regional level and up to Air Force Recruiting Service headquarters, we review all of our demographic data in all of our targets, monthly.
For instance, I mentioned that we’re only bringing in about 4.3% of Asian Americans, but that target needs to be about 9.1% of Asian Americans. How do we do that? How do we do that while maintaining a high, consistent standard across the board? By no means are we talking about lowering standards; we’re not talking about lowering the bar. How do we reach people? How do we attract people?
When it really comes down to it, one of the key things that we focus on is how we attract, how we reach out and how we go after those groups of Americans who may not be naturally interested in coming into the military.
We have to get better about how we go out to the schools. Maybe it’s visiting more historically black colleges and universities, maybe it’s Hispanic serving institutions, maybe it’s student organizations or other professional organizations like the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals.
How do we form strategic partnerships with these organizations? More importantly, (how do we form partnerships with) influencers in those organizations; CEOs, coaches, guidance counselors, parents and others that are ready to be able to give that guidance or recommendation to their athlete, their student, the member of that organization to say, “You really ought to think about the Air Force, there’s a lot that the Air Force has to offer and this could be a good fit for you.”
Airman magazine: For quite a long time, the Air Force has been a family business. It has also been a business that tends to attract those who are close to a base geographically. Kids that are involved in sciences and happen to live around Dayton, know all about AFRL, but big engineering schools, like Drexel or Cornell, maybe not. How do we reach out to them other than the occasional job fair or visit by a recruiter?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: That’s part of the challenge. I’m going to back up just a little bit and tell you about our recruiting landscape and what it looks like out there right now, and then I’m going to drill into your specific question.
Recruiting has continued to become more challenging. We meet our goals every year, we’ve met our goals since 1999, but the challenge that we’re going to have to continue to grapple with as we move forward is less and less people are interested in coming into the military today, primarily because they just don’t know about the military. Then, when you are able to target the population that might be interested, the number that’s actually qualified to come in is considerably lower than it used to be.
If you look at the 17 to 21 year olds, only about 25% are actually qualified to come into the military. That’s a combination of whether they meet the academic standards, the physical standards; maybe behavioral standards because of drug use or other things that can disqualify them. You’ve got a relatively small pool that’s actually qualified to come in today coupled with the fact that less and less people understand the military.
Less than half of American youth can name all four major branches of the military and of the influencers out there such as coaches, parents and guidance counselors, only about half or less would recommend for their student or their child to come into the military today.
Again, largely I believe it’s a gap in awareness and understanding what the military actually is.
Then finally, the personal connection with the military, having a family member in the military, somebody that you see come home in a uniform or that comes home at Christmas and talks about what life was like, what basic military training was like, or officer training school or going to the Air Force Academy was like. Those numbers of interactions today are considerably less than they used to be.
For instance, in 1995 approximately 40% of all American youth had a parent who had served somewhere in the United States military. Today that number is only about 15%. Only about 15% have a mom or dad who served in the military, so there’s a general lack of understanding and a general lack of awareness of what it means to serve.
We get the most basic questions at times. Can I have a dog in the military? Can I have a car; things that would probably surprise you, that we take for granted as Airmen that we know about the service. You have to understand the average American youth outside the gates just doesn’t know.
Airman magazine: You were talking about that smaller pool and we’re becoming a digital Air Force and of that crop of people who are digitally talented and digitally inclined, there’s a lot of competition for their services out there. How does the Air Force try and set itself apart, other than saying we do such cool stuff that we can’t tell you what it is, to attract STEM talent away from Silicon Valley or other commercial technology hubs?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: There’s a variety of ways that we go after the specific type of talent that we need when it comes to STEM talent. For instance, we’ve got about 25 different strategic partnerships that we work at Air Force Recruiting Service.
One of them was with an organization called First Robotics that brings in kids in high school who are mechanically inclined and who are fascinated by science, technology and engineering. We partner with some of those organizations and we bring our recruiters in and use those events as launching pads to provide those kids with exposure to Airmen. We create an understanding of the opportunities that may lie within the Air Force for them to be able to get their hands on that technology, to be able to be a cyber transport technician or to be a maintainer on an F-35 (Lightning II).
Airman magazine: Do we need to start engaging America’s youth at a much younger level, middle school, maybe even earlier, as opposed to waiting until high school and college?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We absolutely have to start engaging early. We don’t recruit early, but we want to inspire early.
The recruiting service has what we call the “recruiting funnel.” To picture it, up at the very top is ‘Inspire’, then you go down further and at the bottom of the funnel, the narrow end, is the recruiting piece, but up here in the top of the funnel, we want to cast a wide net, expose Americans to the Air and Space Forces and be able to inspire the American public.
When there was a little Eddie Thomas who was at MacDill Air Force Base in the seventies, watching red, white, and blue, T-38s fly over during an airshow. I looked up at the Thunderbirds and thought, holy cow, I want to do that. I want to be part of that.
So the things that we do, the way we engage the American public, it may be an in-theater commercial, it might be something on the internet, it might be social media, it might be any number of ways; we can engage from an advertisement to the (U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron) Thunderbirds, to an honor guard performing somewhere.
We want to start inspiring Americans at the youngest age to think, I could do that. I want to be like that. Gee, that just looks like an absolutely great way to be able to spend my life. We want to inspire them, at all ages, to Aim High!
Airman magazine: Why are we back to “Aim High” for the Air Force catchphrase?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We started using “Aim High” back in 1984. We used “Aim High” from about 1984 to 2000, and then it basically went dormant, as often corporations move off and go to something else. We went through a series of them; “Above All,” “Cross into the Blue,” a variety of different ones for the Air Force.
When I got to the air staff, working for Gen. (David L.) Goldfein (former Air Force chief of staff), we looked at all of it again and we thought, what’s the best way to be able to communicate what we do as Airmen, what we bring to the nation, and what value we offer to national security. How do you do that in a tagline? The Marines have been very successful with “The Few, The Proud,” other services have gone through a variety of different ones.
One of my favorite Army slogans back in the 80s was “Be All You Can Be.” I can still remember the jingle that played during the commercials of BDU-clad soldiers jumping out of helicopters and driving M-1 tanks through the woods. Then they went to an “Army of One” and then went to “Army Strong.” Well, as we looked at that and we looked at the whole calculus of how you embody what it means to be an Airman or how do you attract people to come in, ultimately, we came back to “Aim High.”
I absolutely think it is the right tagline for our Air Force and let me tell you why.
Of all the studies, all the research we’ve done, why people join us, why they want to come in and be Airmen, it really kind of boils down to opportunity. People see opportunity. They see opportunity to better themselves, frankly, to “Aim High;” and they see opportunity to serve their country, to be part of something bigger than themselves. They see opportunity to get an education, to get job skills, to travel, and to “Aim High.” To be able to leave their small town or their big city or wherever they are and come do amazing things with amazing people, to aim high. So, we’re sticking with “Aim High.”
Airman magazine: There’s so much more to the Air Force than flying, especially on the technical side. Is this the direction AFRS is moving?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got to be able to inspire a wide swath of talent, interest and attributes to fill our 680,000-person Air Force. We want to attract the next fighter pilot but we also want to attract the next F-22 (Raptor) mechanic or the next civil engineer, or the next aerospace physiology professional.
So we’ve got a variety of strategic partnerships, whether it’s with NASCAR or First Robotics or fitness organizations as we target special operators.
We want to throw a pretty wide net out in one sense. In another sense, we know that we have to use big data, (artificial intelligence) analytics, a very deliberate process to be able to reach each of those folks who would be potentially interested in coming and joining us as Airmen.
Airman magazine: That leads me into the data question. How can we make use of all that data? People are leaving digital footprints everywhere that not only speak to their interests, their capabilities, but also their habits of mind. Is finding individuals who have habits of mind to continuously want to learn important to AFRS?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We’re absolutely looking for those continual learners. We’re looking for those life-long learners who are driven to better themselves.
Primarily, the way to do that is to have a presence in those cultures and those organizations; in those schools and those places where we can find those people who are inclined, who have the drive, who have the intellect and who have the interest to come be part of who we are.
Everything from online e-gaming, to fitness cultures, to STEM-related organizations where they will attract those kinds of people. They’re the same people that we’re vying for; the same people that we want to be able to attract into our ranks.
Airman magazine: The Air Force has long been accused of only going after people who fit the Air Force. Yet, in order to be more agile, more ready to compete quickly, are we looking for people who are more disruptive thinkers, people who will challenge the status quo?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We absolutely have to be more agile. We need disruptive thinkers. We need diversity. We need to be able to bring together teams of individuals who don’t think the same, who don’t come from the same places, who aren’t living inside the same box intellectually.
Every study that I’ve seen on leadership and strong teams show that the strongest, most high performing teams are diverse. The last thing I want is to go to war with a bunch of people that think just like Ed Thomas. That’s not what makes a strong team. I hope Ed Thomas is a strong part of that team, but we need diversity of thought, diversity of skills and diversity of background.
One of the things that I think has made our nation great for so many years is we’ve been a melting pot. People from everywhere, coming together, as the fingers of a hand coming together in forming a fist. E pluribus unum. “Out of many, one”.
Airman magazine: Let’s shift gears a little bit. It’s a challenging environment to do your job with the current pandemic. We’ve all had to pivot, as is evidenced in how we are conducting this interview. I would normally be there in your office taking up valuable oxygen. How has AFRS modified operations to reach your goals and to reach the people that you want to reach in the COVID-19-environment?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We had to do a significant retool back in March when COVID-19 really started to grip the nation. Probably the single biggest change for our Air Force recruiters and our recruiting enterprise is that face-to-face recruiting, which has been the bread and butter of how we attract and inspire people to come into our ranks; we simply weren’t able to do it.
Recruiting was nearly shut down, so there’s a couple of things we had to do.
One, we had to shift quickly to a virtual recruiting model. Zoom was a word that really was little known to most Americans before March of 2020. It was the same for the recruiting service. We’ve started using virtual techniques to be able to connect schools to recruiters.
We had to shift the way we went after recruits to being able to do that online.
Then, one of the other challenges was the physical demands of being able to process people and then ship them to basic training.
Our Air Force made a very key and strategic decision early on in COVID-19, that we were not going to interrupt the training pipeline, that it was mission essential and that we needed to keep people flowing through the pipeline.
That was a real marriage and team interaction between Air Force Recruiting Service, Second Air Force and basic military training. We came up with another term that was really not in play before March of 2020 ー agile shipping. So, as COVID-19 gripped the country, and different parts of the map turned red because of the intensity of the COVID-19 virus, we would have to shift to other areas.
So maybe we were getting ready to ship a bunch of recruits out of the military processing facility in Dallas, and Dallas got hit harder with COVID-19. We might switch to Louisville (Kentucky) or Baltimore or some other part of the country. We stayed on our toes and our recruiters, and our recruiting staff, worked to be able to make sure that we could keep the ranks of BMT full to the capacity we could with COVID-19 each and every week of the year. They did a magnificent job. I’m impressed at the way our folks in the field were able to shift quickly and ship the folks we needed to keep the training pipeline going.
Airman magazine: Now with virtual recruiting, given this environment that we’re working in right now, is it almost a good thing that we’re flexing that muscle? Can you see us going back from this, or is this going to be a larger component of how AFRS does its business?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We’ve learned a lot of lessons through COVID-19. It’s driven some improvement in certain areas, and I think, frankly, what we’re going to find post COVID-19 is a new normal. The new normal is not going to look like it did before March 20.
Hopefully not as draconian as it is right now, but we will rely more on virtual recruiting. We will be more agile in the way we ship and when we ship our recruits to basic military training. We’ve gotten better at online marketing and our ability to drill down to reach a certain kind of person in a certain area, and we’ll do more virtual communication amongst the recruiting team and with our recruits.
So, yeah, we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons; they’ve been hard learned lessons. Our reality today, we certainly hope, is not the reality by the end of the summer of 2021, but there are pieces and parts of that that will not change going forward. We will be adopting them.
Airman magazine: Are you seeing any data yet on virtual recruiting? Are you meeting goals this year with all these challenges?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Yes, and we’re doing surprisingly well at this point. Overall recruiting leads on applicants are up 25%, and leads from social media are 161%. So while virtual recruiting has been harder, I’m optimistic that we’ll meet our goals.
When we get what we call ‘national leads,’ as a result of advertising on social media, we can convert those leads to recruits with about a 30 to 1 ratio. So it takes 30 of those leads to be able to get down to one physical recruit that checks into basic military training.
With face-to-face recruiting, we typically can do that with about an eight to one ratio. So virtual recruiting is harder and it’s more expensive.
We’re going to have to find that right balance of what the environment allows us to do for physical recruiting and find the right combination of virtual recruiting to hit that sweet spot where we can be the most effective.
Airman magazine: There seems to have been a shift in the foundational career fields. In addition to cyber, contracting and acquisitions has become a cornerstone in building a ready and lethal force of the future. Are we actively trying to pursue some of the best and brightest when it comes to agile acquisition methods? How is recruiting for various career fields prioritized?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Yeah, we absolutely are. We do that on the enlisted side and on the officer’s side.
On the enlisted side, what we get is called an Accessions Program Guidance Letter, or APGL, that comes from Headquarters Air Force. It says you will recruit, let’s say 30,000 active-duty Airmen, and they need to be broken up into these different specialties: cyber acquisition, contracting, aircraft maintenance, civil engineer; a number of different fields.
Then Headquarters Air Force and the career field managers essentially say these are the qualifications, we want you to go recruit civil engineers and we need them to be able to have these kinds of test scores and these kinds of qualities.
If it’s special warfare, there’s a lot of physical characteristics that go along with that as well and we doggedly go after every single Airman to fill every single training seat in each specific career field. So, we’re able to have that vast array of talents and qualities of skills that the Air Force needs as a whole to be able to do our mission.
Airman magazine: So, talking about those technical career fields, tell me about Detachment One. What do they do, what kind of success they’ve had, what is their mission and what benefit has that given the recruiting service?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: A couple of years ago, Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt created what she called Detachment One, and she basically thought it into existence. It took a while to get the actual manpower, slots, allocations and resources, but Detachment One is all about rated diversity for pilots, navigators, RPA operators and rated diversity on our officer’s side as our center of gravity for diversity. It’s the single area where we have made the least progress in the area of diversity and where we have to doggedly pursue and increase the diversity in our ranks. As most people know, we’re an Air Force for a reason. Most of our senior leaders are tied to very air centric occupations; they’re pilots, navigators and even weapons systems officers.
Let’s envision what the secretary’s large conference room looks like on the fourth floor of the Pentagon in 20 years. If you walk in that large conference room in the Pentagon filled with Air Force leaders, how diverse is it going to be? I would argue that the diversity of that conference room in 20 years is directly tied to our ability to increase our rated diversity and to be able to attract people from all demographics.
We need them to be able to come in and consider the Air force as a lifestyle and a way of service for them. Let me talk about our Detachment One program. Detachment one is solely dedicated to increasing rated diversity in the Air Force and has a number of really dynamic programs that they’re working to be able to connect with the American people and connect with American youth.
For instance, we’ve got the Aim High Flight Academy. This is an opportunity to bring in American youth, who may not have the opportunity to fly otherwise into a flight camp.
During the summer months, we pair them up with a mentor, get them up soloing in a Cessna 150 to let them taste what it’s like to slip the surly bonds, to taste what it’s like to be able to push in the throttle and pull back on the stick and leave the ground, and to be able to learn basic flight maneuvers. The Aim High Flight Academy targets what we call “early access” to let our American youth taste what it’s like to fly and be part of aviation to get the bug to be a flyer early.
We also do virtual forums that have been one of the ways we’ve been able to reach out in large numbers to the public since COVID-19. Detachment One does what they call “Pathway to Wings.” These are virtual panels of a thousand people or more and a small group of panelists that explain how to earn your wings to become an Air Force pilot or space operator. The panel creates an understanding and awareness of what we do and how to join us.
Detachment One worked for the Civil Air Patrol. It works with Junior ROTC and a host of different organizations that represent minorities, flying communities, colleges and universities to come together and get the word out to communities that otherwise just may not know what it is to be an Air Force pilot.
As our goal, we want people to see how exciting a career in aviation is, how exciting flying an aircraft can be, how exciting coming and joining the Air Force can be and what a great way of life that can be.
Detachment One is all about creating excitement and understanding of what we do. It’s a very attractive lifestyle, but if we don’t tell people about it, if we don’t show them, if we don’t let them taste it, then we potentially lose very high quality, often diverse recruits.
Airman magazine: You are not just recruiting for the Air Force but also for the Space Force?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: As of Dec. 20, 2019, we became the Air Force Recruiting Service for the United States Air Force and the United States Space Force. It’s an exciting new mission. There isn’t one person in the Air Force Recruiting Service who isn’t thrilled about the opportunity to be able to help shape the demographics of the Space Force.
We’ve worked very closely with Gen. (John W.) Raymond (chief of space operations), Gen. (David D.) Thompson (vice chief of space operations) and the Space Force leadership to be able to do a couple of things. One that is the priority right now is the strategic marketing side. That’s the idea that it’s our job at Air Force Recruiting Service to be able to create awareness and understanding for the nation of what a Space Force is, what they do, what their mission is and how critical they are to protecting the American way of life.
Some people might’ve seen some of the rounds of recent commercials we did. One of them that I particularly like was called “Purpose.” The idea of the tagline is your purpose on this planet may not be on this planet. The whole focus of the Space Force recruiting campaign is to get people excited about this new service and how they can come in and serve in a different way then the United States Air Force, to serve the nation and protect space capabilities for all.
Airman magazine: You know, we have been talking about a lot of specific career fields. Let me ask you about this; what kind of success have you had with singling out candidates for special operations right at the get go?.
Maj. Gen. Thomas: So we have a single squadron dedicated to recruiting special warfare professionals. It’s the 330th Recruiting Squadron here in San Antonio.
We’ve had a tremendous amount of success being able to go out and recruit those people who are interested in high performing Air Force special warfare operations. We recruit for all the special warfare specialties as well as (explosive ordnance disposal) and (survival, evasion, resistance and escape). We do it with a combined team of special warfare operators and recruiters that know the field and know the market. We’ve also brought in really innovative contractors who we call our developers.
Once somebody shows interest and they look like they meet the initial qualifications for special warfare, we have, in most cases, former special warfare operators go out and help develop them, to train them physically. Some of it’s a physical presence, some of it’s a virtual presence, to make sure folks can go out and do that 500-meter swim, that 1.5-mile run and can hang with the toughest and meet all of the very high qualifications of a special warfare operator in our Air Force.
Airman magazine: There is a lot of competing messaging crowding the media landscape. How important is engaging in the daily information battlespace to getting your message out accurately to the people that you want to attract?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: Well, I think there’s a couple pieces here, but to have the awareness of what we do and who we are and a reputation of excellence and integrity for the Air Force, and the whole DoD for that matter, is absolutely critical.
Back to Lincoln’s words on public sentiment. It’s everything.
We have to have that public sentiment; the American people need to know us; they need to know our value proposition; they need to know what we represent; and they need to know that we will take care of them. We will protect their interests, we’ll do it as good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, more importantly, good stewards of their sons and daughters when they send them to us to be Airmen. So our presence in the media, virtually, on social media and physical presence out in the communities is essential.
We cannot succeed as an Air Force without taking that outreach mission. That frankly is a responsibility of all of us as Airmen. We can’t succeed without it.
Airman magazine: Your former boss, Gen. Goldfein, was a proponent of failing fast and failing forward. Can you recall how failures have ultimately propelled you to something greater or informed how you lead Airmen in the AFRS mission?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: I would say generally as an Airman and a leader, I’ve learned far more from my failures than I have from my successes. They certainly are far more poignant in my memory and force reflection. Through these failures I’ve more often than not learned something about myself as a leader and learned something about the organization.
Often when you’re trying a new doctrine, or tactic or a new technology, you’ll learn something about those things that help you to be able to innovate, to be able to continue to develop and evolve and be able to hit the target.
In recruiting we use all the best analytics that we can, to be good stewards of the American taxpayer dollar, but ultimately we’ve got to experiment.
You cannot, with absolute certainty say that a certain program, a certain event, a certain commercial, a certain way to reach the American people is going to succeed and because of it, they’re going to be lining up with your recruiter and recruiting offices and wanting to raise their right hand and say, ‘I want to be an Airman.’ We have to be able to give our recruiters and our team the license to be creative while guarding tax dollars. We’re absolutely thoughtful about how we do that, but we’ve got to be able to incentivize and reward risk taking, smart risk taking absolutely, but we’ve got to take risks.
Otherwise, we get stuck in old static paradigms where we’re not growing, we’re not evolving, we’re not being able to break outside of the molds that we’ve been stuck in.
As a commander, if somebody is taking a calculated risk, they weigh the costs and benefits and say, ‘hey, we’re going to try this and if it doesn’t work great, then let’s move on to the next thing’. We want to be smart about it, but we’ve got to encourage that risk taking.
Airman magazine: Would you tell me about the reorganization of the medical waiver process?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We have been able to bring a streamlined process for medical waivers under Air Force Recruiting Service, that serves the active duty, guard, reserve, ROTC and the Academy.
We’ve got a team now of about 30 doctors and medical professionals who are able to centrally look at all of the medical waivers, and request everything from a recruit who is getting ready to ship to BMT that they come up and find something in his record, to the lieutenant who wants to go to pilot training, to a variety of different issues.
We are now able to look at all those waivers in one centralized process with one team of experts that applies a consistent, smart, reasonable standard that serves the Air Force and frankly, serves those applicants in the best ways. We’ve been able to cut processing time down from weeks to just a handful of days, as we work those waivers through and in a lot of cases, we’re able to grant those waivers and bring otherwise very qualified people into our ranks.
Airman magazine: A lot of people have an issue with the length of the service commitment, so are recruiters pitching the Air Force as more of a career or as a stepping stone to achieve a different goal?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: You know, I think really all of the above. We’re looking for those Airmen that want to come in and make a way of life out of it and be in 20 or 30 years, but we’re also looking for those Airmen that are going to come in, get a skill, and they’re going to go out into society as a great citizen.
I think as we recruit it’s kind of a sales portfolio. I say sales in the best sense of the word, because our recruiters are in sales, but what they’re into selling is an opportunity to serve for national security, an opportunity for a great lifestyle and an opportunity to go do amazing things. That can be part time and the reserve while getting the GI Bill to do that. It can be full time in the regular Air Force. It can be for a career, it can be for four years, so absolutely; all of the above.
Airman magazine: So, with that, we talked about the pool of people and how we’re looking at it from a diversity standpoint, but how are we looking at it from a societal changing standpoint? For example, a lot of states are changing their marijuana laws. Are we changing the standards that we hold for our recruits to match the Americans that we currently have?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We are constantly, and I say, we, but these are policy decisions that are made at headquarters Air Force and we are continually evaluating what the norms and the standards are and the laws in American society and how that affects our applicant pool. For instance, tattoos have been one of those things that the standards are far less restrictive about today than they were about four years ago. So, we’re continually evaluating those to ensure we are still getting in the highest quality recruit, but we’re not out of step in a way that we’re depriving ourselves as a service of America’s best and brightest.
Airman magazine: How do you determine who is better suited for the Air Force and the Space Force, and is there a difference in the career fields that are available to Space Force recruits now?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: So recruiting for the Air Force and the U.S. Space Force, while all handled at Air Force Recruiting Service, is somewhat independent. Air Force recruiters handle both, but a potential recruit comes into a station and states a preference for joining with the Space Force or the Air Force. Then from that point, we’re able to counsel them on those job opportunities.
There are some common job opportunities between the two, space operators are only found in the Space Force, however, engineers and intelligence, and some of those other, what we call common AFSCs, we share between both services. Ultimately, that recruit comes in and says, I want to join the Space Force or I want to join the Air Force and we track them in that direction. The Air Force recruiter gets full credit for the recruit either way and has no incentive other than bringing in the most qualified applicants for service.
Airman magazine: Just as a follow up question to that, are there career fields that are going to stick just with the Air Force and never have a counterpart that is in the Space Force, or are we looking to mirror both?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: No, that’s a great question. So, 75% of the support for the Space Force will come from the United States Air Force. For instance, you will not have personnelists, judge advocates, chaplains, public affairs officers, civil engineers, defenders, the list is far longer, of Air Force specialty codes that will not transfer into the Space Force than will. The Space Force was created to be a very light, lean, and agile organization. Think of it as the SpaceX of DoD. It will be a much smaller handful of specialties that are solely dedicated to the operations field will be manned within the Space Force.
Airman magazine: Finally, the most important question by far – What didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: So here’s what I’d leave you with; we need Airmen’s help.
We need every Airman to be a recruiter. We’ve talked about the more fragile connection we have with American society today, the considerably less understanding of who we are and what we do.
The very best recruiting technique we have; the very best recruiting asset we have; is our Airmen.
We need them; on airplanes when they’re sitting next to somebody and they say, ‘yeah, I thought about contacting a recruiter,’ or, ‘hey, I didn’t get a call back from that recruiter,’ or ‘tell me about what you do.’
We need them to pull out their cell phone. We’ve got an ‘Aim High’ app where you can connect an American youth with a recruiter in any part of the country.
We have the ‘We Are All Recruiters’ program where you can go permissive TDY for two weeks to your hometown and do events and go to high schools and you can go to other recruiting venues, wear the uniform and talk about the Air Force. Talk about what we do and talk about the value proposition of how great it is to be an American Airman and what we do for our country.
So the biggest thing I could ask for is for our Airmen to understand they’re a recruiter, and we need them to help us.