AF Study: Why Airmen remain in the Service

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Southwest Asia — U.S. Air Force senior leaders are witnessing elevated retention rates due to military members remaining in the service beyond their initial service commitment.  The increase in retention rates produces challenges to enact the congressionally-mandated force reductions, which creates budget dilemmas. 

By understanding the military members’ motives, budget decision makers can understand why the current incentives designed to get Airmen to separate from the Air Force do not achieve their intended goal.

I am Capt. Renea Skelton and I recently received my doctorate in organizational leadership.

To receive my degree, I completed a 4-year study on a topic of my choosing.  I decided to answer a question that seemed to lack valid research and heavily rely on assumptions.  With the consistent increase in retention rates, there is obviously a reason why Airmen decide to remain in the service. 

Prior to my study, I asked many military members the question and every answer derived from their own personal assumptions.  The lack of valid research to answer the question was astonishing.  For that reason, I began to research on why Airmen decide to remain in the service.

To combat high retention rates, the secretary of the Air Force and senior Air Force leaders decided to strengthen force management initiatives to meet the congressionally-mandated end strength and fix the problem of insufficient funding.  Initiatives included force shaping boards, such as a reduction in force board for officers and a date of separation rollback for enlisted members.

To understand the motivations that cause active duty AF members to stay, I interviewed 19 officer and enlisted Service members from five stateside locations to determine their reasons for remaining.  The rank ranged senior airmen through master sergeant and first lieutenant through lieutenant colonel.  Additionally, I interviewed three generals in an attempt to clarify the senior leader perspective on this issue.

The participants’ responses fell into three main categories in order of importance to the Airmen:  the ability to travel and variety of assignment locations, the vast array of job opportunities that create the “potential” for leadership and mentorship, and military benefits such as healthcare, education, retirement and pay allowances. 

When asking why military members remain in the service, one might assume benefits would be the number one answer.  Instead, participants identified travel as their primary retention driver.

An enlisted member said, “I wanted to travel to get away from home.” Another enlisted member remarked joining the military offered the “opportunity to move/live in different places, and to travel.”  An officer said the aviation career field allowed travel to defend the nation and combat terrorism. 

I found the number one reason, travel, also included the benefits of military travel discounts within airline industries and cruise companies.  Airmen are deciding to stay in because they desire the discounts and the travel associated with it.

Job opportunities that the Air Force provides can create the potential for leadership and mentorship opportunities, while serving in the active duty capacity.  Many military members decide to remain in the service awaiting their turn to lead or to mentor. 

“The military has done a lot for me in developing me both personally and professionally,” one senior enlisted member stated, “I’m always on the look out to give back in the form of helping to shape and develop Airmen at all levels.”

Two officers said they enjoyed working with others who chose to serve and appreciated the young Airmen they taught, learned, and shared with every day. 

I found it surprising many Airmen vocalized they are not receiving the leadership and mentorship opportunities, but are patiently awaiting them.

Not only are leadership and mentorship opportunities important to our Airmen, but military benefits, such as healthcare, education, and pay allowances, possess the ability to motivate military members to remain in the service.  One senior enlisted member commented, “The benefits are really the only thing currently sustaining me in the military as we speak.” 

A senior officer stated the reasonable job security; great benefits such as medical, tuition assistance, and basic allowance for housing and even commercial military discounts such as free visits to museums and national parks, provide the motivation to remain in the service. 

To achieve reduction goals because of the surplus of military personnel, leaders are in search of innovative methods to balance retention. When asked how they would balance retention rates if they held the position of Air Force chief of staff, participant answers ranged from separating military members who do not meet military standards to implementing processes that include transparency and stability such as establishing retention boards every year to eliminate the positions of the bottom 5 percent of the force and allow partial retirement benefits after 10 years of service. 

“Spool up recruiting and let those who want out get out. Focus energy back on Air Force core competencies instead of the myriad menial office tasks and computer-based training requirements,” a senior officer responded.  “Move away from the 1-mistake culture that gridlocks decision making at lowest levels, leading to a frustrating and ineffective work environment.” 

One junior officer suggested a strong national strategy that laid out objectives for the next 20-30 years would be beneficial because the plan could determine the needed end strength for Congress approval.  The officer added leaders must understand shortfalls could have ripple effects that would ultimately cause problems for the total force that includes all military components. 

Military senior leaders also have strong recommendations for the Air Force’s retention dilemma. 

One senior leader stated the Air Force should maintain a systematic force-shaping tool and hold retention boards on an annual basis, similar to promotion boards. That way those not consistently passing their physical training or just a marginal performer can be released without negative penalty.

The release numbers can be flexed from year to year, depending on the needs of the Air Force.  Additionally, Airmen have also become comfortable with the routine of serving minus those with a high deployment rate. 

The Air Force is slow or resistant to hold people accountable unless it is something obviously egregious. We coddle and pamper our Airmen too much and blame the system or supervisors when the Airmen’s actions were a personal choice to do or not do something.

The study results verified the ability to travel, leadership and mentorship opportunities, and the variety of military benefits are integral in retaining Air Force personnel.  Military leaders should focus on the motivational factors of Service members to help balance retention rates if they should decrease below the congressionally-mandated end strength in the future. 

Leaders should research the cost effectiveness of military benefits prior to eliminating them, as well as assign military members to duties that allow them opportunities for leadership and mentorship.

I would recommend future research to include a focus on certain career fields, bases, and ranks.  This could lead to determining if the motivations of Service members are specific to the base, a particular career field, or of a specific rank.  Researchers could also target the deployment cycles of Service members in an attempt to discover if the longevity and occurrence of deployments influences the decision to remain in the service.

By understanding the motives of Air Force Service members, top-level leaders will be able to tailor retention or separation programs appropriately.