The Air Force is setting new targets to ensure it is recruiting a force that represents the country's diversity, shaking up how it finds prospective members, the service's top recruiting chief said this week.
Air Force recruiters must look beyond the southern and western states that have historically turned out the most recruits, Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr., Air Force Recruiting Service's commander, said Monday during the 2020 virtual Air, Space and Cyber conference, hosted by the Air Force Association.
That's why his command set new diversity targets it will try to meet monthly in 2021, he said. The Air Force can no longer afford for significant segments of American society to be underrepresented in the ranks, Thomas said.
"This isn't a quota; it's a target," he said. "But we've got to be able to measure this, look at it and be able to adjust and tweak to ensure we can move the needle."
The Air Force must recruit "the best of the best," Thomas said, and it is currently limiting itself by not connecting with some prospective recruits who might not be the obvious choice for military service.
"Until we're able to equally recruit from all of these demographics," he said, "I don't know that we'll have the best of the best."
The May death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minnesota, has only proven the need for the Air Force to address the issue of diversity in the ranks, Thomas added. Floyd's death has prompted nationwide protests about racism and police brutality and led the military to review its policies to rid the ranks of discriminatory processes.
Thomas called Floyd's death a tragedy that has given the Air Force "an accelerant to change -- a renewed sense of urgency."
Before becoming Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown, the military's first-ever Black service chief, talked about his own career struggles. He recalled being the only African American in his squadron or being asked if he was a pilot even though he was wearing the same flight suit and wings as his peers.
"I'm thinking about how I can make improvements personally, professionally and institutionally so that all airmen -- both today and tomorrow -- can appreciate the value of diversity and serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential," Brown said following Floyd's death.
Air Force Recruiting Service will review monthly whether it is meeting targets for every major demographic, Thomas said. It will use data analytics to "very precisely target the kinds of folks that we're trying to attract into the military," he added.
The primary challenge is in the officer corps and, as Brown described, particularly among pilots.
About 86% of Air Force aviators are currently white men. Less than 3% of pilots are women. But there's work to do on the enlisted side, too, Thomas said, where Asian Americans tend to be underrepresented.
"We're not talking about lowering the bar," he said. "We're talking [about] fishing in the right places, being able to attract those people who might not be interested ... and convincing them that the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. Space Force is a great way of life."
Lt. Col. Annie “Sunshine” Driscoll, commander of Air Force Recruiting Service Detachment 1, recalled being in a room with many of the Air Force wing commanders and noticing the lack of diversity.
“Honestly, I could look around that table and it was about 20 to 25 wing commanders, and almost every single one of them was a white male,” she said. “It was really astonishing to me to see, ‘Wow, so many of these folks came from, you know, very similar backgrounds, and had very similar upbringings in the Air Force and all really have the exact same look.”
The Air Force needs diversity of thought at every level of leadership, Driscoll said. Thomas agrees. What gives the U.S. its strength is that it’s a melting pot, he said, and the Air Force needs to better reflect that.
Many leaders come from military families like his own with a history of military service. Now the Air Force needs to make sure it’s introducing that option to people who haven’t previously considered a military career.
Driscoll said she was one of those prospective candidates who didn't have a connection to the Air Force. If someone hadn't nudged her into applying for a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, she said she never would've considered an Air Force career.
Those are the kinds of connections Thomas said the Air Force needs to ensure it is making.
"Quotas are illegal [and] that that's not what we're doing," he stressed. "It's not reverse discrimination. It's simply making sure everybody understands the opportunities available in our Air Force and our Space Force."