MANSFIELD, Ohio – For high school graduates, a common selling point to enlist in the military is the G.I. Bill, which they can use to pay for education or job training after they complete initial service obligations.
Some recruits, however, find reasons to stay. Technical Sgt. Brittany Patton joined the Ohio Air National Guard specifically for the 100% paid tuition to college. But after a few months of wearing the uniform, she decided she wanted to stay until she can retire after 20 years, she says.
Now as production recruiter for the 179th Airlift Wing at Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base in Mansfield, Patton visits communities to inform potential applicants about what the Air National Guard has to offer, from benefits to job opportunities, she says.
While the coronavirus pandemic slowed recruitment efforts, the 179th enlisted 31 with its last drive – fewer than what the wing recruited the same time last year, she says. Social media played “a huge role” in those recruitment efforts, Patton says.
As of June 1, manning at the base is around 117%, which is higher than the overall manning for the Ohio Air National Guard at 107.4%, she says.
“Our retention is currently at 92%,” Patton says. “If that doesn’t speak volumes about what the 179th has to offer, I don’t know what does.”
Career opportunities at the 179th include vehicle and equipment maintenance as well as aircraft maintenance, where workers ensure the C-130s stationed at the base “are available to fly at a moment’s notice.”
The wing has two recruiters who visit 23 counties, including Mahoning and Trumbull. Fortunately, those in the Mansfield area are familiar enough with the 179th that many call its offices to inquire about joining. About 40% of its active members are referrals, Patton says.
“That also plays a huge role in our recruitment,” she says. “Quite a few of our members are trying to enlist here because they were referred by someone who is already here on base.”
The pandemic has made recruiting a challenge over the last 90 days, agrees Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Sprankle, who is with the recruiting and retention battalion of the Ohio Army National Guard. To abide by social distancing protocols, much of the recruitment efforts are done remotely via phone, email and video conferencing.
Given the constraints from the government, it’s gone “surprisingly well,” says Sprankle, who anticipated a shutdown. “We have definitely exceeded my individual expectations as well as the expectations of leadership,” he says.
As of June 18, the Ohio Army National Guard had recruited 26 in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, which compares to 39 in 2019 and 62 in 2018. Sprankle has seen a decline in recruitment over the last three to five years, saying that physical, moral or educational factors disqualify many of the prospects.
“We’re at a point right now where 70% of our recruitable populations [ages 17 to 24] are disqualified for some reason,” he says.
Eligible recruits must pass a full entrance physical and certain issues – poor eyesight, hearing, morbid obesity, past injuries or illnesses – can disqualify a recruit. Disqualifying moral factors include law violations, civil issues, domestic issues and drug use, he says.
“It’s not easy to be in the military. It’s not easy to get through all of the physical entry standards,” Sprankle says.
Still, interest remains high, he says, particularly for the 100% paid tuition to any state college or university through the Ohio National Guard Scholarship Program. Often, recruits enlist during their junior year of high school and complete basic training during summer break before their senior years.
Of those who enlist, about 70% choose to remain in the guard beyond their initial enlistments, Sprankle says.
“You can stay past 20 years in this organization. I have been in for 24 years and I plan to stay as long as I want to stay,” he says. “You can make the guard a career and it will lead to retirement at the end of it.”
Full- and part-time employment opportunities in the Youngstown area include engineering, armored regiments, military police and a support battalion with mechanics, Sprankle says. Only about 20% of the National Guard force, both Army and Air, is full time, so those members work full-time civilian jobs as well, he says.
The guard also is expanding into careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, with cybersecurity one of the emerging opportunities, he says.
“We’re actually looking for individuals who have those backgrounds and careers,” he says. “We are definitely on the leading edge of that.”
Many of the jobs servicemen and servicewomen work while enlisted can be transferred to civilian occupations, such as machinists, welders, truck drivers and human resources representatives. For members who don’t want to stay, the military has transition services to help them find employment.
The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, offers a transitional readiness course with resume writing and application preparation, and job search assistance, says Director Bradley Alan. The big obstacle is communicating the skills veterans have, including discipline, attention to detail, handling new skills, respect and accountability, and translating that into civilian roles and responsibilities, he says.
“Those are a lot of things that employers are looking for. And it’s finding a way to explain that on a resume,” Alan says. “There are a lot of experiences and good training that needs to be worded correctly.”
One program Alan would like to see in the region is Workshops for Warriors or something similar, he says. The 501c3 program trains, certifies and helps to place veterans in advanced manufacturing careers.
The VA office is working with Penn-Northwest Development Corp. to build a local network of employers who can provide jobs to properly trained veterans, Alan says. As companies expand or lose some workforce through retirements, the network would be able to connect those employers with skilled workers, he says.
“Who better to hire than a veteran?”
Pictured: Technical Sgt. Brittany Patton is a recruiter for the 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard.