This Organization’s Recruiting Practices Are Worth a Look

We are so entangled in our Boolean strings, LinkedIn posts, tweets, and scrapping tools that we have unintentionally failed to notice a special breed of recruiters that exists in the same ecosystem as ours and continues to achieve its goals in a far more efficient ways than we can imagine.

Here is a scenario. You must recruit 68,000 people this year and do that year after year. The economy is thriving. We’re in the most challenging labor market since the inception of the all-volunteer force, and 50 percent of youth admit they know little to nothing about the job. Throw in additional challenges: 71 percent of youth do not qualify, with obesity being the largest disqualifier, but drugs, health problems, misconduct, and aptitude all play a role in that percentage.

Under these circumstances, how do you recruit? Even the most aggressive and fastest-growing corporations in the world would pause and wonder about it.

That’s where the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Command comes in! Its mission: Recruit America’s best volunteers to enable the Army to win in a complex world. USAREC is tasked with the goal of hiring these soldiers year after year. It does that job amazingly well by using a team and tools that has few parallels in the world. Massive targets require massive infrastructure. USAREC is one such large organization with a recruiting team of about 10,000 soldiers within its 44 recruiting battalions and four marketing and engagement battalions. In trying to keep up with the changing culture, technology, and the target talent pool, USAREC has not only kept up with the times but has also stayed several steps ahead of the corporate world. Lisa Ferguson, public affairs, media relations chief at USAREC says, that the “above challenges are real but the command allows recruiters to think outside the box, take risks, and try new things and that approach has empowered recruiters and improved morale.”

USAREC is an extremely process- and data-driven organization that competes with large corporations for talent every day. While it uses a plethora of tools to achieve its goals, below are three strategies and approaches that I wanted to introduce to the corporate world through this article.

Virtual Recruiting Teams

Military recruiters across the country still find success with face-to-face engagements, school, and community events, and networking from previous recruits and applicants. But USAREC has not hesitated in adapting to the ever-increasing presence of social media and mobile platforms in our lives.

Virtual recruiting teams are responsible for generating and refining leads for each recruiting company within the battalion’s footprint. Consider them specialized social media recruiting teams of two to six virtual recruiters embedded within each of USAREC’s 44 battalions. The number of leads required per team differs between battalions depending on the mission requirements.

USAREC is still testing different methods to determine what accomplishments are possible with each method. Staff Sergeant Warren of the Atlanta Recruiting Battalion says his group uses Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok, Flickr, YouTube, and more, and is always looking for new tools. SSG McInnes, from the same battalion, says that “We have had a lot of success with Facebook but not so much with LinkedIn.”

The Atlanta Recruiting Battalion has over 11,000 followers on Facebook today that helps in lead generation. This leads to people walking in or calling. SSG Broughton from the same team says that in addition to keeping a close eye on what’s trending on social media, virtual recruiting teams also arrange virtual events on these platforms to tap into the target pool of candidates.

Sergeant STAR (Strong, Trained, And Ready)

Long before recruiters in the corporate world knew anything about the application of artificial intelligence and chatbots in recruiting, the U.S. Army got together with a company called Next IT, now Verint, to conceive what has become the hallmark of AI-based chatbot technology. This was in 2004. Cleat Grumbly, who is now the vice president of the Intelligent Self-Service division with Verint, has been associated with this program since its inception. “Meet Sgt. STAR” — the U.S. Army’s intuitive intelligent software — has answered millions of questions since he was commissioned.

Sgt. STAR, according to Grumbly, has set the gold standard in the AI space, especially for lead generation and recruiting. The platform that Sgt. STAR is built on is an enterprise-level conversational AI system. The platform supports the current needs of the Army as well as capabilities that Army might want to use in the future, such as conversing in messaging channels or even voice-based channels. With a surge in inquiries about careers in the Army, in 2006 Sgt. STAR was commissioned as the face of the army on GoArmy.com to field hundreds of questions from people interested in learning more about the Army life and careers.

To consider Sgt. STAR just an AI-based chatbot undermines the persona it carries. For the Army, Sgt. STAR is a 6’1” soldier who is fiercely loyal to his mission of providing information about the Army in text and voice to whoever is interested in learning about the careers and life in the U.S. Army. In the past, Sgt. STAR also made public appearances at Army events. He reports into the Army Marketing and Research Group led by Col. John Oliver, to whom Sgt. STAR is an icon that has become indispensable to the Army branding.

According to Col. Oliver, “Sgt. STAR does not initiate anything without the user driving it, and he provides a friendly, safe, and a comfortable environment to the general public and potential recruits to learn about Army life and careers. He is best at directing people to the relevant content either by answering the question in text or voice or opening a new page for people to gather more information.”

Paul Denhup is the subject-matter expert on the program and a veteran himself. He says that Sgt. STAR meets with about 900 people a day online and has so far generated 11,394 leads to date for the Army’s recruiting team. He spends on an average about 2 minutes, 26 seconds with its visitors, accurately answering over 95 percent of these questions. For potential recruits, he provides a lead-generation form or connects them to an Army recruiter if interested.

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Denhup adds, “Sgt. STAR does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of fielding millions of questions about the Army life and generating leads. He has taken over the work of approximately 55 people who worked as cyber-recruiters at the Army’s former live chat facility on GoArmy.com.”

Behind the scenes, Grumbly from Verint says that Sgt. STAR’s “intent recognition model”
understands the users’ questions and the context of their questions. There are typically dozens of ways that someone can ask a question that all boil down to having similar meaning. That meaning is “intent.” For example, recruits will ask questions like:

  • Is basic training difficult?
  • How hard is basic training?
  • How hard it is to pass basic training?
  • Is BCT hard?

These questions all mean the same thing or have the same intent. The intent recognition model is what allows the system to understand that all these different types of questions are all getting at the same thing. Grumbly says that Sgt. STAR currently has over 1,000 units of knowledge or “intents” in his intent recognition model. Because there are many ways to ask a question that go to a single intent, that means that Sgt. STAR can answer tens of thousands (or more) of different kinds of questions from users.

Sgt. STAR’s success on GoArmy.com has led to his integration with Facebook. You can now “friend” him on Facebook. Soon he will be able to answer through voice-activated searches. Also, a female reserves officer, First Lieutenant Stripe, will be joining Sgt. STAR soon as his companion in answering questions that the general public or potential recruits might have.

Since January 1, 2007, SGT STAR has answered over 13 million questions.

Army Esports Team

This is USAREC’s foray into gamification of recruiting. Again, the U.S. Army is leading the way on this by dedicating an entire team and operation to this approach. SFC Christopher Jones, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army Esports Team, says, “the idea emerged for me after realizing it was not well-known that soldiers play games not only just for fun, but competitively.”

USAREC’s market research shows that 60 percent of Americans play video games daily, with 18-35 year old being the age group with the highest percentage of daily players. Ferguson says that 64 percent of U.S. households have a device used to play video games; 45 percent of gamers are women, and 55 percent of frequent players say video games help them connect with their friends. “That’s a large group of people,” she says, that “the Army wants them to know about the more than 150 career options the Army has available to them, using the skills they’ve honed in gaming: Teamwork, split-second decision making, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, problem solving, and strategic thinking.”

According to USAREC’s plans, the Army Esports Team will have 20 soldiers who will be stationed at Fort Knox, but with several at-large team members stationed at their regular duty stations who will have the option to travel to specific tournaments, based on games at which they excel. These soldiers will use gaming as an outreach tool to help recruiters connect with a broad audience. These soldiers are not recruiters, but they will work across the country in support of recruiting efforts. USAREC does not have a target number of recruits, but it knows that the Esports Team has the potential to reach a large audience. The esports team members will serve as Army ambassadors who support recruiters and recruiting missions across the country. They will create awareness about Army careers and benefits in support of the recruiting mission and then direct those who are interested to local recruiters for more information.

For us in the corporate world, there is so much that we can learn from these fine men and women. And finally, on the lighter side, if you are ever on GoArmy.com, ask SGT STAR “what do you do for fun? Or “who do you report to.” His answers will bring a smile to your face!

Shailendra (Shail) is a senior talent-acquisition professional with over 15 years of experience in successfully managing recruiting operations and acquiring talent across the globe in broad spectrum of skills and levels in the corporate, executive, and technology fields in both defense and civilian space. He currently manages recruiting operations for Candid Partners, a specialty cloud consulting firm in Atlanta. He specializes in global talent acquisition, talent management, and career counseling and is always interested in learning about military recruiting, use of social media and artificial intelligence in talent acquisition. You can connect with him at sj2273@yahoo.com

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