Walz, back from Kuwait trip, mulls National Guard recruiting incentives

Gov. Tim Walz, who returned Sunday from a trip to the Middle East, says the state needs to incentivize people to join the Minnesota National Guard.

Walz spent two days in Kuwait with about 100 National Guard soldiers who are doing logistics support and human resources work. The soldiers deployed earlier this year and won't return home until 2023.

The DFL governor, who in January will be sworn in for his second term, said he planned to include recruiting and retention incentives in his budget proposal that he plans to release Jan. 24. Walz said he was mulling whether to expand educational benefits and bonuses.

"They don't just re-up for the bonuses but, when I ask people, they say the bonuses help make it a lot easier," Walz told reporters at a news conference with the Minnesota National Guard's top officials. "I'll say this, we need to come up with a plan that makes it easier for people to say 'Yes' in their busy lives."

Earlier this year, the state Legislature approved a $25 million bonus pool for soldiers who served after Sept. 11, 2001. The bonuses ranged from $600 to $2,000. But the law excluded some veterans based on residency, and the Legislature should expand the eligibility in 2023, Walz said.

On the Kuwait trip, Walz said he also learned that some states allow dependent children to use a soldier's education benefits. The governor said he'd asked National Guard officials to consider ideas for retention.

"As we put our budget together, I think you can expect to see some of that," Walz said.

The Minnesota National Guard has about 13,000 soldiers and airmen. Over the past three years, they've dealt with crisis at home in addition to overseas missions.

Walz mobilized the entire National Guard to respond to the 2020 riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the first full mobilization since World War II. Soldiers have also staffed COVID-19 vaccination sites and provided emergency assistance in nursing homes during the Omicron surge last winter.

Despite the challenges and a historically tight labor market, National Guard officials say they continued to hit recruiting targets this fall. The Guard's low position vacancy rate is one of the best in the country, Adjutant General Shawn Manke said.

"But we’re not resting on that, because we know the struggle," Manke said. "We’re all kind of fishing in the same pond. Look what unemployment is in the state of Minnesota."