CAPE MAY - Despite trends showcasing social media and all the ways it can be used to reach specific audiences, the individual recruiter is "still the most important element" in the U.S. Coast Guard's efforts to recruit nearly 4,000 active members and reservists this year.
According to Capt. Tom Walsh, who is midway through a three-year assignment as commander of the Coast Guard's Recruiting Command Center, Washington, "While we have an online presence and chat capability online through instant messaging, the biggest impact, the deciding factor in someone deciding if they want to join the Coast Guard, is the recruiter. People still want to talk to people."
Recruiters Train in Cape May
About 100 new recruiters are trained each year at the Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, where they interact with recruits undergoing boot camp, observing their challenges so they can prepare prospective recruits for eight weeks of intensive mental and physical challenges.
From March through September, Chief Petty Officer Frederick Clay and his instructors cover sales, marketing, communications, public speaking, and the recruiting process during a three-week program that prepares the recruiter to select those with the "leadership skills, self-motivation and desire to have an impact in the world." Candidates also have to pass physical, medical and character standards, along with a background check.
Process Ensures 'Top-Quality' Candidates
To help the Coast Guard recruit "top-quality candidates," a recruiter asks interested parties a preliminary set of questions to determine if they qualify for the service, including information about any arrest record, whether they are a high school graduate and basic medical history. According to Walsh, the recruiter will also discuss why a candidate wants to join the Coast Guard, determining if it will meet those reasons and interests.
The next step would be a visit to one of 65 Military Entrance Process Stations for further testing. The closest one is Fort Dix, where a candidate undergoes further testing to determine jobs he or she may be qualified to fill. Physical and medical tests are given, and fingerprints are taken for a background check.
If the candidate is successful, the recruiter then prepares him or her for boot camp in Cape May. Officer candidates are also recruited for training at the Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn. About 17% of recruits drop out because they can't complete basic training or have physical or medical conditions, or determine the Coast Guard isn't for them, according to Walsh.
"Recruiters have to tell the Coast Guard story," Clay pointed out, "but we can't teach that. That comes from within, based on an individual's experiences." Coast Guard members volunteer for the recruiting assignment and must have at least four years' experience in the Guard.
"From my experience, the life-saving mission is unique," Clay said. He's been in the Coast Guard for 17.5 years and has been in charge of the recruiting school for two years. He was a recruiter in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area for four years prior.
"We also have missions to protect the environment, law enforcement, and to protect our country and keep it safe," he added. "I joined the Coast Guard on a whim, after Sept. 11, 2001, not really knowing the story. But for as long as I have been in the Guard, it's met expectations and goals. It's been quite an experience."
Recruiting in 'Competitive' Market
Walsh and Clay said despite having a "good brand" in the Cape May County area, recruiting for the Coast Guard is competitive locally and nationwide. "The unemployment rate is low, we are competing against other branches of the military, higher education and other jobs," Clay noted.
"We reach out to potential candidates through all the usual channels such as schools, community organizations, career fairs, social media," he added.
Walsh said they also target specific skill sets, now looking for those skilled in technology, electronics, culinary and rescue swimming. "Sometimes you are doing Coast Guard work without realizing it," he said. Recruiting efforts include online gaming sites and competitions in those targeted areas as well.
"We don't need everyone to have a career with us, but you can join for a few years and apply those skills to civilian pursuits," Walsh added.
Achieving Recruitment Targets
While Cape May County boasts a "Coast Guard Community" designation, Walsh said recruiters "still work hard" to achieve their annual targets here.
"The Coast Guard has great visibility in the county because you can see the training center, you can see the recruits," noted Walsh. "While you may know one or two things that we do, potential candidates may not be educated about our 11 missions. The base is behind gates; you may not be aware of all the opportunities."
The recruiting office in Northfield targets Pennsylvania, Delaware and most of New Jersey, including Cape May County. Walsh said the office is "doing very well" this year: recruiting 41 candidates for active duty against a target of 50 and recruiting eight reservists against a target of 10, for the year.
"Our numbers go up or down each year, based on our needs and types of skills we need," he noted. "Sometimes when we decommission a ship, we may need more or fewer people because of improvements or other changes."
CG Seeks Better Diversification
Despite recruiting numbers shifting, the number of offices hasn't changed much over time. There are 336 recruiters in 55 offices nationwide. Walsh said they are opening an office in Jackson, Miss., which should help them "continue to diversify the Coast Guard to better represent what the U.S. looks like."
Over the past two years, female recruits increased from 13.5 percent to 22 percent and minorities represent 45 percent of the Guard population. "Less than one-third of those who are of military-age qualify for military service," Walsh said, pointing out some recruiting challenges, "because of their character, or because of medical or academic status. We have an epidemic of obesity so young people can't always meet physical standards.
"There are less veterans around now, so people associate less with the military," he continued. "Our recruiters have to work hard, compete with the other branches and against low unemployment rates. They are using methods in the digital world that hadn't been dreamt of years ago.
Doing Something that Matters
"Our recruits want to know if they can have families, raise kids and still balance that with the needs of the Coast Guard, and they can," Walsh stressed. "We are looking for top-quality candidates. We can provide job training or education benefits for when they leave.
"I joined because it's not just a military branch for war, we have a full-time peace-time mission. You can do something every day that matters," Walsh added.
To contact Karen Knight, email firstname.lastname@example.org.