The Views of the Force

Aug. 1, 1998

Many Air Force members are working harder, spending more time away from home, and thinking more seriously than ever about quitting. Those are among the more disturbing conclusions to be found in USAF’s latest Chief of Staff Survey, results of which were published late this spring.

The poll, perhaps the most ambitious the service has performed, was conducted last fall. It not only probed standard quality-of-life matters but also asked members to comment on the organizational climate of their units. This second section of the survey asked respondents to rate their organizations on leadership, resources, teamwork, and overall performance.

As with other recent surveys, this one was directed at the entire active force. Officers, enlisted members, and civilian employees were invited to answer computer-based questionnaires. More than 200,000 persons (almost 40 percent of the population) responded.

On the bright side, most members agreed that the Air Force is a good place to work and provides a good quality of life. Most also said that their families are supportive of their careers. However, the responses of enlisted members and pilots on these points were generally less positive than those of nonrated officers and civilians.

General Well Being

% Officer % Enlisted % Civilian
Jr. Field Pilot 1st Term 2nd Term Jr. Sr.
USAF is a good place to work 81 83 71 69 68 83 81
USAF provides good quality of life 76 77 67 66 60 76 75
Family supportive of career 71 78 59 63 60 82 83
How well USAF informs 47 54 40 45 41 51 49

Fewer than half the respondents agreed that the Air Force keeps them well enough informed. Pilots and second term airmen showed the most negative perceptions of the information flow.

The most discouraging findings, however, came in responses to questions about members’ career intentions. Only 64 percent of officers and 58 percent of airmen say they intend to stay until retirement. Compared with the results in the previous two surveys, this represented a drop of 10 percentage points for officers and six for enlisted.

About 77 percent of civilian members said they planned to stay, but this figure also is down from previous years. And, while three out of four civilians plan to stay, fewer than half (47 percent) said they felt secure about their continued employment with the force.

Career Intent–Three-Year Trend

Intent Officer Enlisted Civilian
1995 1996 1997 1995 1996 1997 1995 1996 1997
Stay 74 72 64 64 62 58 81 84 77
Undecided 12 13 13 16 17 15 11 10 14
Go 14 15 23 20 21 27 8 6 9

There has been a corresponding increase in the percentages in all grades who say they plan to quit before they are eligible for retirement, up from 14 to 23 percent for officers, from 20 to 27 percent for airmen, and from 8 to 9 percent for civilians.

Disquieting Results

Findings among specific groups of members were even more disquieting. The latest poll found, for example, that almost half (47 percent) of second-term airmen plan to leave short of retirement.

Among pilots, there was a marked difference in the career intent of different years-of-service groups. The most junior and most senior pilots generally said they intended to stay, but more than half of those with six to 12 years of service said that they planned to leave. This group includes the active, experienced young fliers whom the service is most concerned about retaining.

The most positive career intentions were shown by officers of all grades in US Air Forces in Europe and by company graders in Air Force Space Command. However, the career intent of company graders in Air Force Materiel Command was even lower than the Air Force average.

Three-Year Comparison

of Work Levels

Yearly TDY Days and

Work Hours/Week by Groups

Average TDY days per year Group TDY Hours
Year Officer Enlisted Civilian XXX Pilot 83 55
1995 50 46 26 Navigator 75 54
1996 53 54 22 Nonrated Line Officer 51 54
1997 56 60 24 Non-line Officer 31 55
Average hours per week Rated Enlisted Crew 66 50
1996 51 46 N/A Non-aircrew Enlisted 57 49
1997 55 49 44

The much-examined areas of operational and personnel tempo were given another look by the survey, and, not surprisingly, USAF found there have been steady increases in both problems over the past three years. Officers reported averaging 50 days TDY in 1995, 53 days in 1996, and 56 days in 1997. Enlisted members said they had seen similar increases (from 46 days to 54 to 60). There was no similar trend for civilians.

Average work hours per week also have been on the increase. Officers who said they worked 51 hours in 1996 reported spending 55 hours on the job a year later. The enlisted work week rose from 46 hours to 49 over the same period. Earlier figures were not available for civilians, but those responding in 1997 said they worked 44 hours per week.

As expected, the Air Force found officers in Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command, and Air Mobility Command pulling more TDY than those in areas such as Air Force Space Command and Air Education and Training Command.

However, most members reported working longer hours regardless of unit assignments.

More marked differences were reported by members in specific specialties. Among officers, pilots apparently spend the most time TDY (83 days per year) and put in 55 working hours per week. Navigators came in a close second with 75 days TDY and 54-hour weeks. Nonrated line officers reported spending only 51 days TDY but said they worked 54-hour weeks. Non-line officers said they averaged only 31 days TDY but also put in 55-hour weeks.

95 Percent

Among enlisted members, air crews said they served the most TDY (66 days vs. 57 for others), but all reported working from 49 to 50 hours per week. Asked if their work weeks had increased in the past year, more than 95 percent of the military members and more than half of the civilians said they had.

Asked why their work hours increased, the respondents’ answers varied, but all said that additional duties were the main cause and undermanned work centers a close second. Training requirements, heavier workloads, inspections, and exercises were listed as other factors.

With respondents allowed to list more than one reason for their increased working hours, 64 percent of the pilots cited additional duties, 46 percent blamed work center undermanning, and 35 percent said the cause was training requirements. About 28 percent mentioned increased workload, 36 percent named preparing for inspections, and 34 percent picked exercises.

Members in AFSOC, ACC, and AMC in particular said their work hours were up because of more increased preparation for and participation in exercises, more TDY, and work center undermanning. AMC officers reported additional duties as a major reason.

Asked if the demands of their jobs had posed any special personal problems in the past year, about half said they had not. Among pilots, however, about two-thirds said they had had difficulties.

Problems Due to Unusual Job Demands
Nature of Problem % Officers % Pilots % Enlisted
Maintaining Health/Fitness 53 50 36
Maintaining Relationships 46 52 38
Doing car/household repairs 45 52 33
Ability to take leave 41 44 31
Communicating with family 39 43 34

Again, respondents were allowed to list more than one problem area. About half the pilots reported having experienced trouble maintaining relationships, maintaining health and fitness, and getting car and household repairs done.

Communicating with families and the inability to take leave were cited less often. The responses of other officers were similar, but enlisted members generally reported fewer problems. The highest percentage of enlisted troops cited difficulties maintaining relationships, and smaller percentages listed other problems.

Impact of Optempo
Area of Impact % Officer % Pilot % Enlisted
Required PME 38 53 28
Required Training 41 57 34
Personal Problems 36 52 33

Pilots also gave the most weight to questions about the impact of optempo on their ability to train, personal issues, and their opportunity to take required professional education and training. Again, smaller percentages of other officers cited such problems and even smaller percentages of enlisted members did so.

In a related analysis, the Air Force tried to measure the tempo effects on younger members (less than 12 years of service) in several specialties. It looked at the average number of days TDY for the skill and at the percentage of members in the skill who planned to separate.

Pilots and Navigators

Pilots reported the highest TDY rate (121 days), and 55 percent said they planned to quit. Although navigators said they averaged almost as much TDY (104 days), only 21 percent said they planned to separate.

In the medical field, medical doctors in surgical fields averaged only 47 days TDY, but 55 percent said they would separate. Other physicians apparently pulled more TDY, but smaller percentages said they planned to leave before retirement.

A similar comparison was made among enlisted members with less than 12 years of service. Those in the Office of Special Investigations said they averaged 86 days TDY, and 40 percent said they planned to separate. By contrast, those in aerospace maintenance averaged 137 days, but only 20 percent said they planned to quit. The Air Force concluded that the findings followed no consistent pattern, suggesting that factors other than TDY might be affecting career intent in these specialties.

Officers Planning to Quit vs. TDY Days Enlisted Members Planning to Quit vs TDY Days
% Quitting Avg. TDY % Quittingg Avg. TDY
Pilots 55 121 OSI 40 86
Surgery 55 47 C2 Systems Ops 33 112
Physician 39 56 Biomedical Technicians 33 70
Manpower 38 49 Communications-Electronics 28 126
OSI 30 81 Communications-Computers 28 112
Information Management 25 53 Weather 27 91
Dental 25 47 Security Forces 25 125
Operations Support 24 72 Aircrew Operations 25 117
Aerospace Medicine 24 71 Intelligence 24 107
Navigators 21 104 Aircrew Protection 22 93
Mission Support 21 93
Aerospace Maintenance 20 137

Another section of the poll tried to measure how much use members made of various base-level services, programs, and facilities and how much influence each had on their career decisions. The largest percentages listed grocery shopping, retail shopping, medical and dental health care, and fitness and sports activities as most used.

Considerably smaller percentages said they used on-base child development centers and family day care and educational programs. The responses of officers and enlisted members followed roughly similar patterns.

When asked what programs most influenced their career decisions, however, officers and enlisted troops were quite different. Overall, higher percentages of officers picked medical health care and commissaries. Among enlisted troops, career airmen listed health care highest, but younger airmen listed tuition assistance first.

Non-career airmen in AFSOC, AFMC, AMC, and Pacific Air Forces gave higher ratings to exchanges, field grade officers in PACAF cited housing as important to their career decisions, and pilots with USAFE voted particularly heavily for health care.

When the survey asked what base programs, services, or facilities the town could supply, about one-third of all members said none. Of those who said local communities could provide some facilities, most listed libraries as a possibility. About 63 percent of officers and 47 percent of enlisted troops picked this choice. About 42 percent of officers said towns could provide retail shopping, but only 37 percent of enlisted troops agreed.

When the Air Force asked members how they felt about compensation, a higher percentage of officers and civilians said total pay was fair and equitable, while most enlisted troops did not. The trend was similar for all pay items, although both officers and enlisted troops agreed moving allowances were good. Interestingly, although they generally make more money than other officers of the same grades, pilots gave lower ratings to all pay items.

More? Or Less

In a separate question, the Air Force asked members if they thought their service pay and benefits were as good or better than they could earn in the same work in the private sector. Only about 22 percent of officers and 16 percent of enlisted members agreed their service pay was better. Only 6 percent of pilots thought they could make more in the Air Force, but almost half of the civilians said they could.

Percentage Agreeing Pays Are Fair and Equitable
Pay Category % Officer % Enlisted % Civilian
Jr. Field Pilot 1st Term 2d Term Life Jr. Sr.
Total Pay 59 60 50 28 23 30 56 68
Basic Pay 48 48 40 23 17 22 54 58
TDY Allowance 55 57 39 38 39 38 60 70
Moving Allowance 65 49 49 46 50 46 47 56
Housing Allowance 47 40 32 33 29 28 N/A N/A

In yet another pay question, almost half the enlisted troops said they could not afford or could barely afford things they need. Only 13 percent of officers gave the same response, and civilian responses fell somewhere between the two.

When the Air Force asked how important retirement was to their career decisions, higher percentages of senior officers and career airmen said it was very important or most important.

Predictably, the importance of retirement was highest among officers who said they planned to remain in service long enough to retire.

Importance of Retirement in Decision to Stay
Rating % Officer % Enlisted
Jr. Field 1st Term 2d Term Life
Very Important 40 45 24 27 31
Most Important 17 34 16 22 45

The findings were similar among enlisted members although the percentage of junior enlisted troops who cited retirement as a major factor was smaller than that for career members. In a similar question, even higher percentages of civilian employees said retirement was important to their decision to stay.

Turning to a series of questions on housing, the Air Force asked members how satisfied they were about theirs. Most said they were satisfied. The percentages were higher among officers and among all grades for those living off base.

When the Air Force pinned them down as to what they disliked about their quarters, most officers said they had too little room. The second biggest complaint by those living on base was the poor overall quality of their housing.

Lack of room also was a common complaint among airmen, but high percentages of those living off base said the cost of their housing was the biggest problem. And, like officers, many of those living on base cited poor quality of the quarters. High noise levels were more often a complaint among members living on base than among those living in town.

Asked what factors governed their preferences for living on or off base, officers living on base said the cost, the short commute to work, and, for married officers, neighborhood safety were important. Among those living off base, the quality of housing, privacy, and the desire to get away from work were most often listed.

The responses of enlisted members were similar to those of officers although the percentages varied somewhat. Privacy, for example, was listed as important by higher percentages of airmen than officers among those living off base, as well as by single airmen living on base. Getting away from work was also a high priority for airmen living off base.

Percent Satisfied With Current Housing Satisfaction With Tricare
Officer Enlisted XXXXX Level of Enrollment
Married 78 63 Members Prime Extra Standard
Single 79 49 % Officer 42 30 27
On Base 65 47 % Enlisted 38 28 29
Off Base 84 69

Questioned about their satisfaction with health care, higher percentages of officers than airmen said they were satisfied with both medical and dental care. However, only 40 percent or less in all grades said they were satisfied with Tricare.

Overall, Prime enrollees in all grades showed more satisfaction with Tricare. Officers in the Tricare Extra program were a little happier than airmen, and airmen under the Standard option were slightly more satisfied than officers.

Percent Satisfied With Health Care Programs
Officer Enlisted
Type of Care Married Single Married Single
Medical 53 58 44 45
Dental 52 67 44 53
Tricare 40 40 37 36

In a question on Professional Military Education, members were asked how they would prefer to take the training. Most officers and higher percentages of enlisted said they preferred in-residence study. Correspondence was preferred by more airmen than officers.

In related queries, half of all officers and 54 percent of airmen said they were satisfied with education opportunities at their bases. Junior officers and airmen were somewhat less satisfied, and dissatisfaction was highest among officers assigned overseas.

In separate questions to civilians, only one in four said the civilian awards program was effective, and more than half said they were not satisfied with promotion opportunities. However, some 55 percent said they were willing to relocate to advance their careers.

Measuring Unit Factors

In the second portion of the survey, the Air Force tried to measure members’ perceptions of their units using 14 indicators such as job satisfaction, available resources, supervision, and leadership.

Respondents were asked to rate various statements about each subject on a six-point scale (from one “strongly disagree” to six “strongly agree”). Those who gave the statement a four (“slightly agree”) or higher were considered to have a positive attitude about it.

In the overall ratings, members were most positive about job factors. Eighty-nine percent of the sample group showed satisfaction with their work, although enlisted members were slightly less positive than officers or civilians.

Unit performance, core values, teamwork, and supervision also received high marks, with 79 percent or more voicing positive attitudes. The respondents gave lower ratings (66 percent positive) to statements about their units’ recognition of their worth and to those about the resources available. The general organizational climate received an even lower score (63 percent positive), and the mean rating for all three was only four, the lowest level of agreement.

About 79 percent of members gave supervision positive ratings, and 70 percent rated unit leadership as positive. Unit flexibility also ranked low on the approval scale.

There were some marked differences in the ratings given by various groups taking the survey. Overall, officers tended to show more positive reactions than did enlisted members or civilians. The exception was on the question of unit resources. Only 58 percent of officers agreed their units had all they needed, compared with 67 percent for enlisted members and 68 percent for civilians.

Organizational Climate Profile
Indicator % Positive Mean
The Job 89 5
Unit Performance Measures 85 4.8
Core Values 80 4.5
Teamwork 80 4.5
Supervision 79 4.5
Training and Development 79 4.5
Communications 78 4.4
Participation/Involvment 76 4.4
Job Satisfaction 75 4.3
Leadership 70 4.1
Unit Flexibility 67 4.1
Recognition 66 4
Unit Resources 66 4
General Organization Climate 63 4

Elsewhere, 91 percent of the officers had positive reactions to their units’ teamwork, compared with only about 78 percent of enlisted and civilian members. There was a similar split on communications, 87 percent of officers showing positive attitudes against about 76 percent for others.

Statements dealing with the amount of recognition units give their members drew the lowest percentage of agreement from enlisted members (64 percent) and civilians (61 percent). About 80 percent of officers were positive on the point.

Leadership Questions

Reactions to each of the unit-related factors were based on several different statements and reactions to these varied considerably. In the area of leadership, for example, some 80 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “I am proud of the leadership in my unit.” However, only about 63 percent agreed that “My unit leadership is inspirational.” And there was only slightly more agreement with the statement, “My unit leadership makes decisions based on facts.”

On the subject of unit resources, most members agreed they had enough time and tools to do their jobs, but far fewer (about 44 percent) agreed they had enough people in their work groups.

Members’ jobs were the subject of two sets of statements. Most (80 percent or more) agreed that their jobs let them use a variety of skills, see the finished products of their work, and work with a minimum of supervision. However, they had somewhat less positive reactions to statements about job satisfaction. The coolest (71 percent agreement) was to the statement, “I have a sense of personal fulfillment at the end of the day.”

Similarly, reactions to statements about general unit climate were mixed. About 77 percent of those polled said they felt they were valued members of their units, and most (70 percent) said people in their units were charitable with their time, talents, and money. But fewer (62 percent) rated morale in their units as high, and even fewer (60 percent) said they would recommend an assignment to their unit to a friend.

The Air Force’s overall conclusion from the survey was, “People who think their jobs are important and understand how they fit into the unit’s mission are generally more satisfied with their jobs.”

Again, however, USAF conceded that officer responses generally were more positive than those of either enlisted members or civilians.

Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “Zuckert Remembers,” appeared in the June 1998 issue.