The Air Force this month will suspend its 4-year-old “base of preference” program for airmen who are on at least their second enlistment contract, saying it fails to send most applicants to the installations they want.
Stopping the initiative at the end of May can also offer the service more flexibility to move airmen around as military staffing needs dictate.
The change affects “career airmen,” or those who have reenlisted at least once. They previously needed to spend at least four years in their jobs before leaving for a preferred base.
The Air Force Personnel Center will accept base requests from those airmen no later than May 31, according to service spokesperson Lt. Col. Jennifer Pearson.
“Airmen who received an official assignment notification through the BOP program will continue on their assignment,” Pearson said.
First-term airmen, or those serving out their initial four-year commitment, can still volunteer for overseas jobs as long as they have been in the Air Force for at least 12 months before shipping out for that assignment.
Less than 30 percent of applicants are matched with their desired locations, according to a screenshot of an April 26 email from enlisted personnel manager Chief Master Sgt. Claudia Carcamo that was posted to the popular “Air Force amn/nco/snco” Facebook page.
“Airmen still have voluntary opportunities to move,” Carcamo said, pointing to technical training instructor positions and other special duty jobs in training, recruiting and support services.
Those options offer enlisted airmen the chance to move within the continental United States for an assignment that helps them “grow professionally and meet [Air Force] mission requirements,” Carcamo wrote.
Pearson did not answer how many people typically try their luck at the base of preference program each year by press time Thursday.
“That success rate would have been way higher if we actually had a resource where your standard airman could easily see what bases had openings/low manning, without having to have your [senior enlisted leader] ask your [career field manager] (who probably gets pinged about that at least once a week from people all over the world),” Reddit user JustHangInThere wrote April 28.
“Virtually everyone’s BOP application is a shot in the dark,” they added. “AFPC set themselves up for failure on this one.”
When asked which bases the change could affect most, or if certain bases have particularly acute manning needs, Pearson said the service continues to keep tabs on its workforce to “ensure mission success and airman career development.”
The Air Force did not provide a response at the time of publishing alternatives to the base of preference program it may consider.
“As additional modifications are made to the enlisted assignment process, we will revisit this pause and other alternatives to the program,” Carcamo said in the email.
More than 50 enlisted career fields currently face worker shortages or need to build a deeper bench of airmen for the future, the Air Force indicated last month. That comes as the service wants to cut nearly 6,000 jobs in 2023 related to planes that may retire, and could shuffle airmen around to fill higher-priority openings.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass told Air Force Times in a March 7 email that she hopes senior noncommissioned officers will be the first group of enlisted airmen to search for jobs on Talent Marketplace, where their officer counterparts can currently apply for future work.
But the service is still “working through how to properly blend mission needs with assignment policy” in a single, transparent online system, she said.
In March, Bass expected that a working group tasked with hashing out possible new ideas for enlisted assignments would present its findings to senior leaders within a few weeks.
“The group took a holistic look at overall assignment policies and will present recommendations that make sense, are fiscally sound and allow us to best align the talent of our airmen,” Bass said. “Some of this will be policy-oriented, while other recommendations will require technological solutions.”
The Air Force did not immediately provide an update on the working group when contacted Wednesday.
A recent Reddit post indicated that enlisted jobs are trickling into Talent Marketplace, an assignment component of the Air Force’s “myVector” career management platform. The service began testing out Talent Marketplace for the enlisted corps in March 2021.
According to one Redditor, the Air Force Personnel Center will list available units and jobs for those looking for a permanent move. Then airmen pick their favorite options, and the service assigns jobs based on factors like job experience and goals.
“The current system only goes by bases (not units, not positions), and there is not a lot of transparency,” the Reddit user, whose account and username have since been deleted, said in March. “Experience and goals are not part of the equation.”
The user noted that enlisted intelligence specialists were trying out their version of Talent Marketplace for job moves coming up in the first half of 2023.
“Nobody can see assignment options/open slots just yet,” the Redditor said March 9. “I think that’s the next step.”
Some social media users protested the decision as an example of the Air Force’s disregard for airmen’s welfare. Others called for patience to see what comes next.
“Everyone wants to complain that they are losing this program when the new system is much better, in my opinion,” Facebook user Joseph Carter commented. “I like that I can see all openings available at the time and not waste my time with trying to get a base that is 100% full on manning.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.