Promotions, Instructor Recruitment to Get a Fresh Look

From left, Capt. J. Paul Reasner, 334th Fighter Squadron weapon systems officer instructor, and Capt. Seth Hyde, 334th FS pilot, approach an F-15E Strike Eagle, March 18, 2019, at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. Air Force photo by A1C Jacob Derry.

The Air Force announced planned tweaks to how it manages promotions and vets prospective instructors and recruiters.

Three changes, driven by a need to maintain a competitive advantage in line with the National Defense Strategy, will be staggered throughout the next few months, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, told reporters at an April 3 roundtable. The service’s talent management system should be simple, transparent, agile, and responsive, he said.

First, the service wants to ensure it’s putting the best officers in instructor and recruiter jobs to find and teach the next generation by building on an earlier program rolled out for enlisted airmen.

“We embraced that concept several years ago and created what we called a developmental special-duty program for our enlisted folks,” Kelly said. “This is where we had our commanders, our senior raters, identify and submit the airmen who had the right competence and the right character to serve in some of these key duties … like recruiters, military training instructors, first sergeants, technical training instructors.”

Under a new officer instructor and recruiting special-duty program, commanders will pick recruiter candidates and submit them to a central vetting board for review before the service makes its final decision. Functional teams in each Air Force career field will go through a similar process to choose who goes on to teach at training schools.

“We’ve attempted to place greater value and emphasis in this part of our foundational enterprise before and have been sort of unsuccessful in changing the culture,” Kelly said. “We haven’t really synchronized what we’ve done with the associated programs that were put in place.”

Non-monetary incentives—like deployment exemptions and the ability to tailor how long tours of duty last and where someone goes—aim to generate interest and keep people in those jobs. But people aren’t forced to take the slot if their commander recommends them, Kelly said, and leaders will have to balance the greater needs of the Air Force against wanting to keep the best and brightest.

Commanders need to nominate 15 percent of their eligible officers, but the initiative won’t grow the overall number of instructors and recruiters. The Air Force currently has around 3,500 of those positions for officers.

“I wouldn’t use the words ‘really good,’” Kelly said when asked about the type of people he wants to see nominated. “Not everybody is going to be a good instructor. Not everybody is going to be a good recruiter. … You’re not necessarily looking for just the best people, but the right fits to make sure they can do well and maximize the enterprise.”

Those officers should inspire others, be experts in their fields, and have a solid moral compass, Kelly said.

He hopes the new approach will entice more people to volunteer for jobs that can be seen as career-limiting. On the enlisted side, people who have taken advantage of the special duty program get promoted at higher rates, he added.

The process isn’t intended to fill shortages, but Kelly believes instructor shortages could get filled in as more people become interested in the new program.

Second, the nine-line promotion recommendation form will shrink to two lines. Officials want senior leaders to write more succinct, precise recommendations for airmen instead of embellishing their praise with buzzwords that make a candidate look better.

“We end up getting things that have unintended messages, not as transparent as we want them to be,” Kelly said. “Was the rater’s intent that the person who they recommended for [a joint position], are they trying to tell us that that person is more capable, more qualified than the person they’re only sending to the Air Force school? … There was a lot of creative writing.”

Couldn’t people still try to hype a candidate in fewer words? Sure, but Kelly said they’ve tested the shorter form and its added instructions with positive results.

Last, the service will rethink which criteria should make someone eligible for a promotion, regardless of their career field. Airmen should be judged by their performance in jobs that are important in their particular career field, not disqualified because they didn’t hold a position that wasn’t available to or didn’t make sense for them.

Some do their combat jobs by deploying overseas; others are just as important staying at their domestic base. Some have a clear line of progression through command positions; others prove their strengths by staying in one place longer.

“We can’t have a one-size-fits-all development path,” Kelly said. “Since 1947, we have had one promotion competitive category where we put all of our specialties, all of our functionals, … and therefore [we] had them promote against [each other].”

The service is now looking at how to break up that group to give those in nontraditional careers like space, intelligence, and cyber a fair shot. Similar career paths will be placed together.

That decision mirrors the Air Force’s broader recognition that its recruitment and retention policies should evolve to meet a new set of personnel needs, and comes amid some criticism that fighter pilots dominate service leadership—though Kelly said that isn’t driving the initiative.

“We’ve been working for about 18 months, looking at how do we evaluate, how do we promote officers and develop officers for the future of combat,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at an April 2 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “Probably by this summer, we will be rolling out new categories, including separate categories for different kinds of officers, about seven different subcategories, so that a cyber officer doesn’t have the same things to do in their career as a maintenance officer, and they don’t compare to each other.”

“We need to promote to the needs of the service and not just promote everybody like they’re a line in the Air Force,” she added.