While the Navy struggles with one of the most difficult recruiting periods in decades, Rear Adm. Douglas “V8” Verissimo has set his sights on reaching the next generation of sailors.
Verissimo took the helm of Naval Air Force Atlantic in mid-August. The Norfolk, Virginia-based headquarters is responsible for the material readiness, administration, training and inspection of units and squadrons.
Recruitment, he said, is among his top priorities. According to Navy Recruiting Command, the service set a goal of approximately 50,000 new recruits for Fiscal Year 2023, which concludes Sept. 30. Last year, the Navy’s goal of 45,000 new recruits fell short by around 3,000, or 6%. Year-to-date recruitment data is not available.
“Uniformed services in general whether it be in a civilian sector — police, fire — and the other services to include the Navy, we’re just having challenges getting young people to desire to serve their nation or to realize what kind of benefit comes from serving the nation,” Verissimo said.
Factors that contribute to this challenging environment, the Navy Recruiting Command said, are a strong economy, decreasing service by influencers, such parents, teachers, and coaches, and low propensity to serve due to misperceptions and fear around military service. The Navy is currently targeting Generation Z, those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, and Generation Alpha, those born in 2010 onward.
“The jobs we’re talking about are for young people, whether that’s right out of high school or right out of college, and there’s only a time in your life you can do them. You can’t go back when you’re 30 and say, ‘Man, I wish I had done that’,” Verissimo said.
Among those jobs are aviation machinist’s mates, electrician’s mates, mechanics and technicians. Enlisted positions typically require an initial service commitment of four years, but positions involving longer-term training may involve five- or six-year obligations.
The Navy is trying to make training faster and provide what it calls competitive pay and benefits. This year, the service announced record-high bonuses for recruits who pursue nuclear jobs, allowing them to cash in on up to $75,000.
But Verissimo said he believes reaching those ages 17-21 is all about breaking through on social media.
“The communication techniques have changed over the years. How do we get to podcasts or that on-demand viewership? It is hard to break into social media unless there is an initial interest in what you’re doing. The algorithms, my understanding is, it pulls in and it pushes more of what you’re already looking at,” Verissimo said.
Once the Navy reaches those young people, the challenge is marketing the responsibilities of sailors in a way that captures their interest and demonstrates the versatility of the training received.
“The Navy provides some very expensive training for four or five years that you can parlay later in your life, whether that’s fixing aircraft or fixing ships or learning how to weld at a very high standard operating nuclear power plants. You might not make a ton of money while you’re a sailor who enlists for those first four years but you’re making a lot of money in training. You can probably compete with most college graduates after four or five years in the Navy financially and you don’t have a bill,” Verissimo said.
“Giving up four or five years to better your life early and sacrificing some in the beginning, pays dividends,” he added.
The Navy, Verissimo said, does not have to be a decades-long commitment.
“My ‘dad conversation’ is to experiment through your 20s. Figure out what you might want to do. By the time you’re 30, pursue with a passion what you really want to do,” Verissimo said.
Retention, he said, will come later, as sailors discover a camaraderie among peers and a passion to serve the nation.
“It was the airplanes and the ships and the equipment when I was young. I wanted to go do that…But what everybody will tell you they remember and what keeps them in is the people and the team,” Verissimo said.
For Verissimo, he said it was the family stability that propelled him to a 30-year (and counting) career in the Navy.
“I never had to worry about my family… Financially, this is a very low risk profession. Protecting the nation has its own risks. You’re pledging the Constitution and the commander in chief decides what risks you take in your life. But it is a very structured lifestyle and that was appealing to me so that my family — my wife, my children — they would have good schools and a house to live in,” Verissimo said.
Verissimo does not push policy that would implement new recruitment tactics — that falls to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of Defense. But he said he is in the unique position to forge a close relationship with Hampton Roads.
“We have a pretty extensive presence here in Hampton Roads. I think that our community relationship here affords us an opportunity to speak more intimately with a local population,” Verissimo said.
“Based on the tools I have right now, I can just talk about the profession that I love and represent what our sailors are doing out there.”
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