If numbers tell the story, as the saying goes, military recruiting reads like a tale of horror. Both active and reserve component recruiters are facing one of their most challenging years in decades. Each service, and the Army in particular, anticipates falling well short of its annual recruiting goals.
The Army Guard, which hasn’t made its recruiting mission since 2019, was only about halfway to its fiscal year 2022 goal of 38,430 new soldiers, with less than two months remaining as of press time.
“We’re in a war for talent,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville told junior officers during a recent visit to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, adding that less than one in four young adults are qualified to serve, with rising obesity the main obstacle.
Desperate to pull recruits from this shrinking pool, the Armed Forces are rolling out massive enlistment bonuses, loosening tattoo policies and even offering some recruits a say in their first duty station.
But for some recruiters, these efforts smack of business as usual, especially in a digital age. The greatest weapon in the “war for talent,” they contend, rests in the hands of nearly every young American.
‘The phone always wins’
Army Sgt. Georgia Varoucha cringes whenever she hears a National Guard marketing pitch come across her radio.
“People’s attention is on their phones. Look at their screen time, any time of day,” said the 25-year-old New Jersey Army National Guard recruiter. “Nothing pisses me off more than when I hear one of our ads on the radio … The phone is always going to win.”
Varoucha is among a growing wave of reserve component recruiters who have embraced digital content creation in the hopes of reversing the downward recruiting trend.
“I think the old way of doing recruiting is going to die out,” Varoucha said. “We’ll set up tables at schools or an event, and the kids might be right in front of me, watching my video on their phone, but not come up to me in person.”
And they are watching – in droves. Varoucha is only a few years into her work as a full-time recruiter, but her TikTok following is staggering – just shy of half a million – with nearly another 23,000 on Instagram.
She specializes in short-form video content that captures the humanity of uniformed service. Rather than offer up talking points on a career field or the latest bonus, Varoucha puts a face to the Guard, disarming her audiences with humor and personality.
“It’s about selling your story, something people can relate to, more than ‘Let’s talk about this MOS,’” said Varoucha, who moved from Greece to the U.S. in high school. “I’m a female. I’m an immigrant. I barely spoke English when I got here. This is my story … It helps them see themselves through you, that they can do it, too.”
Recruiters soft sell the Guard
Varoucha’s massive audience has generated significant recruiting leads, catching the attention of the National Guard Bureau. Last year, its leaders asked her to join forces with Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Swartz, an Army Guard recruiter out of New York City with nearly two decades of recruiting experience.
“We built an entire virtual recruiter program from scratch,” Swartz said.
Whereas Varoucha hits recruits with quick, compelling content, Swartz goes deep, preferring polished YouTube videos that often last 20 minutes or longer.
“She’s really good at short-term content, and I’m decent at long-term content,” he said.
Swartz is being modest. In the past year alone, his digital content has received more than 6 million views, mostly from his nearly 40,000 YouTube subscribers, and all without a single dollar in advertising. The return on investment, he said, is clear.
“The maximum effectiveness of a business card, poster tear-off, banner … is that one individual or group. It ends right there,” he said. “A piece of content or video lasts forever.”
Above all, Swartz is helpful. In marketing terms, it’s his brand. His longform videos provide concrete guidance to potential recruits, offering an unvarnished look into military life.
“I’m more about building relationships, rather than stuffing the Guard down their throats,” Swartz said. “There is no selling involved. My videos are adding value multiple times, and with my way, you are growing a following.”
That following translates into a digital community of trust, where the Guard sells itself. As of press time, Swartz has placed 18 recruits in uniform in FY22 – two more than his annual goal – and 14 of those came through YouTube.
“They’re pretty much already sold by the time they speak to you,” he said. “(You) just have to connect the dots on how you can specifically help them reach their goals.”
‘We still make soldiers’
Like Swartz, Sgt. 1st Class Levar Curry, of the South Carolina Army National Guard, has been in the recruiting game for about 20 years. He remembers clearly the on-site, in-person hustle the gig once required.
“I was going to the schools, doing fitness programs in the gyms, outreaching to the community,” he said. “Basically, it was like there was 20 of me.”
Known affectionately as “Big Sarge” – as much a reference to his oversized personality as his powerlifter’s physique – Curry eventually began leveraging social media to advance his personal fitness brand. It wasn’t long before he would test the waters with recruiting on social media, as well.
“I said, let me takes some pictures of these kids, put them up, and tag them,” he said. “And they loved it.”
Curry soon began churning out content, often centered on his fitness sessions involving would-be soldiers. Today, it’s not unusual to see a young person on Curry’s digital platforms working out alongside him with heavy chains around their necks, the chains more metaphor than training equipment.
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“I instill confidence in them,” Curry said. “If you can push through these burdens, these chains, you have the potential to be a great soldier.”
As passionate as he is about the opportunities digital media offers, he is adamant it needs to be rooted in an “old-school work ethic” and commitment to quality in recruits. Soldiers, he argues, not social media, should remain the focus.
“It’s the future of recruiting,” Curry said. “But I recruit leaders.”
Having placed more than 400 people in uniform over his career, he’s learned that at the end of the day, not much has changed in what makes for a good recruit.
“The foundation is still training, getting down in the dirt,” Curry said. “When they get to basic training, they take their phones, they disconnect them … We still make soldiers.”
For more information on National Guard recruiters, visit the National Guard website.