To boost retention, Air Force wants smoother transitions between reserve, active service

Military officers needs explicit permission from Congress to transition from part-time reservist to full-time active duty, but Air Force secretary Heather Wilso...

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The Air Force’s top official said her service needs to make it easier for officers to transition back-and-forth between active and part-time reserve status, and views current complications in that process as a hindrance to retention.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said her service is not having trouble attracting new airmen of the caliber it wants, at least for the time being. But like the other military services, the Air Force is growing, making retention a high priority.

To achieve that, she said the system needs to become more flexible, so that it is more attractive to airmen who might otherwise leave for what they perceive as a less-rigid career in the civilian job market.

“We all need to think about making it easier to come and go from the service,” she said Friday during remarks at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “We need to make it easier to come back from the reserves to active duty, so that it’s more part-time and full-time. It’s more difficult than it should be because of some legacies from a prior era, involving doing a scroll with Congress. It’s just really too complicated.”

“Scrolling” is the legal process that requires the president to formally nominate and the Senate to confirm promotions for military officers. The same process, which routinely takes several months, also applies to officers who are simply moving from a reserve component to the active duty force, even if a promotion is not involved.

“Doing this differently would allow people to manage their careers and their lives better and more easily,” she said. “Let’s say someone gets to the point where they’re a major, and they have a parent who’s ailing: they can’t deploy right now, but they can deal with that and then come back in at a later point. It allows people to manage their lives, and allows us to keep talent.”

Program for flexibility expiring in 2019

The military services already have the authority to let servicemembers take one-to-three year breaks from their active duty careers through the Career Intermission Program. But that program requires them to temporarily leave the military altogether, rather than remaining in uniform as drilling reservists.

Eighty-six airmen have used to program to pause their military service since the Air Force first received the authority for CIP in 2014, but that authority is set to expire next year. The Air Force is among the military services that are urging Congress to make the program permanent.

But as a general matter, studies performed for the Air Force indicated that added career flexibility was  a highly-important incentive for both recruiting and retention, particularly for women, said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the deputy Air Force chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services.

“The RAND Corporation just finished a study for us, and it showed there are definitely some systemic things we need to do. Childcare was a big one of them — if families can’t take care of their children, we’re not going to retain them,” she said. “The other thing that was very clear from women is that they want to get off the escalator. So we have to have some way to figure out [Defense Officer Personnel Management Act] reform, whether it’s technical tracks so that they can be more technical, or maybe opportunities to cross-train into career fields that may be more suitable to having a family.”

DOPMA is the 1980 law that sets tight requirements for military officers’ careers. These include how and when officers are promoted, and the “up-or-out” system that requires them to either achieve their next promotions according to that schedule, or depart the military entirely.

Legislative changes proposed

Over the last several years, the Pentagon has proposed some changes to gradually chip away at some of the DOPMA requirements.

The Senate has generally been more receptive to those changes than the House, and the Senate Armed Services Committee successfully included language in the 2018 Defense authorization bill that requires DoD to deliver an overall assessment of how DOPMA needs to be amended in order to meet the military’s future workforce needs.

The report was supposed to be delivered by the end of March, but DoD has yet to publicly release its latest round of legislative proposals to alter the personnel system.

The Navy has been the earliest and most vocal proponent of those changes, but each of the military services are now advocating for additional flexibility in the officer personnel system

“For us, all of this is geared toward making our people pyramids smaller at the base, and taller – keep the people around longer, bring fewer people in the front door,” said Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the Chief of Naval Personnel. “If we’re going to do that, we’ve got to let them get off the treadmill every once in a while.”

That is easily accomplished for enlisted personnel, because relatively few federal laws explicitly define their career paths. Consequently, the military services are freer to set their own policies, including the ones the Navy has already introduced under the heading of “Sailor 2025.”

“But DOPMA gives us no choice on the officer side. If you’re a dual-military couple – and we’ve got a lot of those these days, often the only alternative is for one of the two to get out,” Burke said. “Is that what we want, with our limited numbers of talent? I think we can provide an alternative that is ‘up-and-stay’ or ‘up and move into the reserves,’ and then quickly and easily come back in, whenever your life-work balance needs are met. You can’t simply do that today.”

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