WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s most senior leader gave insight into her life and shared career advice with Airmen across the Air Force during her first town hall Jan. 9.
Speaking from the Pentagon auditorium, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James spoke about her 32 years of defense experience, passing on lessons she’s learned, and encouraging Airmen to view challenges as opportunities.
James, who grew up along the New Jersey shore, originally came to Washington D.C. with her lifelong dream of becoming a diplomat for the State Department.
But that dream job never happened.
“I prepared all these years, and now the dream was busted,” James said. “… boy, was it devastating.”
With a signed lease, James had to stay in the city and figure out a way to move on with her career.
“You have to pull up your socks and get on with it,” James said. “That was when my dream shifted. I had to zig-zag in life.”
In 1981, James began her career in the field of defense.
“Now, more than three decades later, that is where I have spent my professional life,” James said of her experience, which includes everything from working for the Department of Defense to a related private sector industry.
James said her swearing in as the Air Force’s 23rd secretary is “the culmination of that period,” noting that not receiving what she thought was her dream job may have been a blessing in disguise.
James offered her story as an opportunity to talk to Airmen about how they approach their own career challenges today, particularly in the face of significant personnel cuts, forcing many to reconsider career opportunities.
“The projections are up to 25,000 reductions in personnel and hundreds of aircraft will come down as well,” James said.
With these cuts, James encourages commanders and supervisors to go make the first move, and help their Airmen.
“Reach out to them, go on the offense, and give them some advice,” said James, who encouraged mentorship throughout her address.
A theme in James’ short tenure as secretary has been opportunity. Opportunity is what set James on the path of working for the Department of Defense.
“One door closes, another door opens,” James said.
For Airmen who are looking to retire early or separate, or are worried they may be selected for involuntary separation, James encourages them to be proactive in their career, and to “own it.”
“If you don’t have enough information about your specialty and what is likely to happen in your career field, go on the offensive and ask questions until you get answers,” James said.
Although budget uncertainty means the numbers remain fluid right now, James pledged that senior leaders will strive to be as open with information as possible. Her goal is to disclose as much information as possible, as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to be transparent,” James said. “That’s our job. And get you as much information as possible so you can make those career decisions.”
James, who was formally sworn in Dec. 20, 2013, implores Airmen to own their careers, whether that’s as a member of the Air Force, or outside of the service.
“Manage your own career and take the reins so you can make a good judgment and proceed in your career,” James said. “Seize the opportunity. Don’t be afraid of the opportunity. You’ll be better off for it.”