To solve retention challenges, Air Force expands retention bonuses worth up to $90,000

The Air Force is adding three more occupational specialties to its list of professions that are so short-staffed that it’s willing to pay currently-serving enlisted airmen tens of thousands of additional dollars as an inducement to stay in their jobs.

The May 30 update to the service’s Selective Retention Bonus (SRB) program also boosted payments for four other Air Force specialties that had already been on the list. None of the existing specialties were removed, suggesting the Air Force is continuing to face retention challenges in some of the areas that had already been eligible for the bonuses.

The lump-sum payments — worth up to $90,000 — are generally only offered when the Air Force believes it has critical personnel shortages in a particular career field, or when training new airmen in that specialty is unusually expensive.

New additions to SRB program include specialists in all-source intelligence, Korean-language cryptographic analysis and electromagnetic spectrum operations. The Air Force also increased or expanded eligibility for reenlistment bonuses for airmen trained as nuclear weapons specialists, dental hygienists and two categories of avionics and electronics specialists.

The actual amounts of the payments are determined by a mathematical formula: the airman’s current monthly pay, times the number of years he or she is agreeing to stay in service, times a “multiplier” of anywhere between 2 and 7 set by the Air Force, depending on how critical officials deem the shortage in any given career field to be.

The current list of bonus-eligible Air Force Specialty Codes now stands at 92, up from 40 AFSCs only three years ago, an indication that the Air Force’s retention challenges are not limited to pilots, whose departure from military service in order to fly for commercial airlines has been the primary focus of attention from Congress and the public.

The tally of AFSCs now eligible for the bonuses ranges from cyber specialists to flight attendants to equal opportunity experts, but the highest payouts are reserved for a relative handful of professions, including pararescue jumpers, airborne cryptological experts with foreign language skills, tactical air controllers, explosives disposal experts and special operations weather specialists. In those cases, the Air Force is willing to apply a bonus multiplier of 6 or 7.

Heather Wilson, the Air Force secretary, told Congress earlier this month that some of the service’s most acute retention challenges surround what it refers to as “battlefield airmen.”

“It’s our joint tactical operations officers, our pararescue jumpers: think combat trauma, and fighting your way in to go and recover downed pilots. They’re some of our most highly decorated airmen, and it is hard to recruit in that field,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This year, we stood up a special recruiting element that specifically focuses on those special operators. The others, things like cyber, are not so hard to recruit, but they’re certainly hard to retain because their skills are in such high demand.”

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