The Air Force continues to look for ways to better manage the talents of its airmen and retain those now serving in overmanned positions.

This month service officials unveiled tweaks to the noncommissioned officer retraining program that are designed to simplify the reenlistment process and pipeline volunteers into understaffed career fields.

If they fall short of their goals, however, involuntary retraining or separations will follow.

“We are continuing to advance our talent management programs, allowing more flexibility and opportunities to keep Airmen in our ranks,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in a news release. “This is key to keeping great talent we need and for the future force against potential challenges.”

The retraining reform for fiscal 2024 allows career airmen — those in their second or subsequent enlistment — to pivot into any career field staffed below 90% of its needed manpower, rather than risk involuntary separation. The service extended the same flexibility to first term airmen in June.

The changes are taking place in two phases.

During Phase I, which began Aug. 1, airmen are given an extended application window of nine months, affording them more time to ponder a move and prepare their package. The service hopes to find volunteers now serving in overmanned career fields who are willing to switch to a short-staffed Air Force Specialty Code.

If applications are still needed for Phase I, airmen vulnerable for involuntary retraining will be notified in early February and urged to apply for undermanned career fields prior to implementation of Phase II (involuntary transitions) which is set to run from May 1 through July 31, 2024.

Phase II will still provide career airmen the opportunity to retrain into any specialty code manned below 90% in lieu of separation.

The Air Force is struggling to fill its ranks. Kristyn Jones, the service’s assistant secretary for financial management, told Congress in March that the branch expected to fall 3,000 airmen short of its FY24 active duty end strength recruitment goal (around 10 to 13 percent of the total). Accounting for Air National Guard and reservists, that forecasted deficit swelled to around 10,000. Retention fared better, with roughly 90% of airmen and guardians electing to reenlist, according to Jones.

Other branches are beset by similar staffing difficulties. Recruitment officials blame an unusually competitive job market and flagging public interest in military service as some of the principal causes of the shortfalls.

Air Force officials hope to make up ground by making it easier and more lucrative to join and stay aboard.

The branch kicked off a new pilot retention initiative on Aug. 15. The trial program, authorized in the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act, will allow select active duty aviators slated to leave the service in FY24 or FY25 to sign contract extensions worth up to $50,000 annually.

“Retaining our experienced aviators is key to succeeding in a warfighting environment,” Brig. Gen. Kirsten Aguilar, director of Air Force force management policy, said in a press release. “The demo program helps posture the Air Force to reliably retain aviators to meet current and future operational requirements.”

The previous day, the Department of Defense launched its inaugural “Talent Management Innovation Challenge,” a military-wide competition for savvy ideas to recruit and retain personnel.

Through Sept. 30, participants may submit their ideas in one of three categories: recruiting and accessions; promotion and retention; or “wild card.” Finalists will pitch their idea to a panel of DoD senior leaders for possible adoption.

“The Talent Management Innovation Challenge encourages DoD military and civilian employees at all levels to submit promising talent management ideas with potential to make an impact across the department in recruiting, retaining, and promoting a diverse force. It is an opportunity for service members and civilians to have their voices heard, showcase their ingenuity and share passion projects or solutions to better enhance the workplace.

DOD leadership hope the talent management contest will spawn other alluring incentive schemes.

“To remain the best fighting force in the world and effectively compete in today’s job marketplace, we must innovate the way we recruit, retain, and develop top talent,” said Gilbert Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “We are working hard to solve today’s talent management challenges, and this challenge reinforces the need to tap into the full range of strengths and capabilities of all our employees.”

Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.

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