To improve retention, Air Force considering flexible movement between active duty and reserve

The Air Force already faced two scares in recent years when it came to retaining airmen for the critical jobs of maintainers and pilots, especially in the mid-career range.

As Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson prepares to leave office at the end of the month, she’s planning to help implement some new personnel measures to stymie further leakage of crucial occupations.

Heather Wilson
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson (AP photo)

“We need to make it easier to shift from active duty to reserve or Guard, and back to active again,” Wilson said during a meeting with reporters in Washington on Thursday. “People have stuff that happens in their lives. They have priorities they need to deal with: Their mom is sick or they need to throttle back for a few years. It should be easier for someone who we have put millions of dollars into training to take a little bit of a pause and then come back in.”

Wilson said the Air Force will need help from Congress to make that possible. It could end up as a legislative recommendation in the 2020 defense authorization bill.

Preventing the loss of airmen is especially important for the service as it has grown from a total force of 660,000 to 690,000 in the last couple of years and will likely continue to grow as demands for space, air and cyber units increase.

While bouncing from reserve to active duty is a future option, the service is ready to roll out the draft of its new occupation-specific promotion track next week.

“The result of [the one-size-fits-all approach] is we are kind of dependent on [the] chance to make sure we are promoting officers or career fields like research and development, test and evaluation, and acquisition,” Wilson said.

She added that the changes will have a profound impact on the Air Force in 10 years.

“It will allow us to highlight and develop more scientific and technical expertise,” she said. “It’s not unusual for a young captain to say to their commander, ‘I really want to go back and get my Master’s in electrical engineering or my Ph.D.’ and the answer, usually, from their boss is, ‘You’re a great officer. Don’t get off the ladder because we really need you as a senior officer in our service and getting that Ph.D. will hurt you.’ It should never hurt an officer to put themselves forward in higher education that they need and it currently does.”

Helping airmen balance work and family

The specific tracks will focus on six areas: Air operations, nuclear and missile occupations, space operations, information warfare, combat support and future force — occupations like acquisition specialists.

The Air Force will make a final decision in October after it gets input from personnel experts and airmen.

Finally, an area where the Air Force already made some progress, Wilson said, is in its talent marketplace. Wilson said better pairing between airmen and assignments translates to happier and more productive troops.

“It’s really a new software program and we’re doing it in a DevOps way,” Wilson said. “As of February, all officers are doing their assignments through the talent marketplace. Basically, all the assignments are open for this summer are open and officers can go in and say ‘OK, I’m looking for assignments for major, in my logistics specialty, I’ve got a kid with special needs; we are joint spouse.’ You check all of those things and then look at the options and what’s available and bid on them. First, second and third choice.”

The marketplace gives officers more transparency and choice in their assignments. That lets them live closer to family or take jobs they truly enjoy.

The Air Force is taking advantage of the same algorithm as used by medical residency matching systems to get as many people as they can their first choice.

“More than anything else the issue for airmen at mid-career is balancing work and family, getting some control and still meeting the needs of the force,” Wilson said.

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