CHEYENNE — Wyoming National Guard leaders expressed concerns to state legislators Tuesday about declining candidate recruitment and retention.
Since fiscal year 2020, the Wyoming Army National Guard reported a drop from 102 to 97 percent in strength, and the Wyoming Air National Guard fell more than 2 percentage points in the past year. Military officials said they anticipate a continued decline in the number of members enlisted by the end of fiscal 2022, which they attribute, in part, to the negative impact of COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Wyoming National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Greg Porter said this isn’t just a Wyoming issue, but rather a nationwide dilemma.
“It’s a fairly significant problem that I’m losing sleep about,” he told members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee.
They met Tuesday to listen to military leaders discuss one of their interim priorities, which is finding ways to provide state support for recruitment and retention. The presentation to lawmakers stated that each year, recruiters are expected to replace every outgoing soldier or airman, at a minimum. When the Guard is not already 100% staffed, replacing outgoing Guard members is just the start.
The current average annual loss rates are 10.9 percent for the Wyoming Air Guard and 11.9 percent for the Army Guard. While the Air Guard gained 169 total new accessions after losing 116 last fiscal year, the Army Guard only added 231 members after losing 259.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit right now,” Porter said. “And we’re spending a lot of time, effort and energy on it.”
Although fiscal 2022 is not over, and the data cannot be drawn directly from the vaccine mandate yet, there are still associated losses. The adjutant general said at least 41 individuals opted not to join the Air Guard due to the requirement, more than 64 are seeking exemptions, and 11 were honorably discharged. The Army Guard also had 19 soldiers who did not want to join, 76 refusing who are currently members, and only 75 percent are fully vaccinated.
He also cited societal changes. Porter said that currently only 14 percent of men and around 5 percent of women express interest in joining the military, half of America’s parents discourage their family members from joining, and the competitive advantage of providing financial support and an education has deteriorated. Since companies such as Starbucks, Walmart and McDonald’s are in search of staff, they’re offering scholarships and encroaching on the GI Bill benefits.
Another obstacle discussed by Major Karen Hinkle was more unique to the state.
“One of the challenges in Wyoming, and particularly for the National Guard, is that our state population is very small in contrast to every other state,” she said. “And that has made it challenging for us to recruit in accordance with the model that seems to be successful in surrounding states.”
She mentioned solutions that include the fact that the single best source of new recruits is current airmen and soldiers. Wyoming Guard leadership suggested the Legislature fund a $500 bonus for Guard members that successfully refer individuals. This is based on referral incentives in Alabama and Vermont.
Options include providing a cash bonus for any referral of a new member to the Wyoming National Guard or referral of enlisted members.
The easiest plan to administer is for a financial incentive for any new member, and it is the costliest plan. The total projected cost per biennium for new member referrals would be $440,000, assuming 440 individuals signed with the Guard per year. While the projected cost per biennium for referring enlisted members would be $368,000, with an assumption of 368 accessions each year, it does not incentivize the referrals of skilled professionals.
Hinkle clarified since the estimate is $500 for each referral per year, the biennium cost would be double.
Legislators did not vote on the action to draft a bill, nor did they take public comment on the recommendation. They said they will continue to consider such recruitment and retention efforts.
“What we find more and more is the military’s becoming a family business,” Porter said. “Almost every enlistee that we have has some sort of relationship, familial relationship or friend relationship with somebody in the military. That tends to be that connection now.”