Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Education and Training Command, addressed the Air Force’s current force development and talent management challenges during a panel Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s 2020 virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
The “Culture Collision and Talent Management” panel, which included Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services for the U.S. Air Force, and moderated by retired Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, focused on the challenges and opportunities the service is tackling in recruiting, training, developing, and retaining talented Airmen and space professionals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social issues facing the nation.
Explaining how AETC responded to the pandemic, Webb said, “The readiness of the U.S. Air Force depended on the production engine of AETC. We adopted the term ‘fighting through’ and (that mantra) continues on as we speak.”
The novel coronavirus pandemic provided opportunities for AETC to innovate, such as opening a secondary basic military training location at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, as a contingency option. Instructors, trainers, staff and medical personnel also implemented numerous health and safety mitigation protocols across the recruiting, training and education enterprise to ensure the training pipeline remained open and the command continued to develop the Airmen needed for future conflicts.
COVID-19 mandated operations as required, which forced unique opportunities like teleworking. Kelly predicted this would not only continue, but could also transform how the service hires civilian employees.
“I would see us not going back to some of the (more traditional) models; not just teleworking in the location where you live, but imagine us being able to hire somebody in Arizona who works in the Pentagon and who never has to leave Arizona, maybe occasionally coming TDY to the Pentagon,” Kelly said.
After explaining changes made during the pandemic to make recruiting, technical training, and officer and enlisted education and development more agile, Webb said, “This will change the Air Force fundamentally, it has definitely changed AETC,” said Webb. “There is a laundry list within AETC of things that we won’t return to pre-COVID.”
In addition to fighting through COVID-19, Air Force leaders responded to unrest and events nationwide to reemphasize the need for a diverse and inclusive force as a warfighting imperative. Both leaders agreed that the issue has gained positive momentum.
“We are on a good path to make permanent changes to our culture and not just repeating the cycles of the past,” said Kelly.
In AETC, Webb has initiated a Facebook Live video series entitled “Real Talk ñ Race and Diversity in the Air Force” that features open and honest dialogue as part of a “seek to understand” phase, as leaders across the command look to create actionable change.
“The key to this is sustaining it as a marathon and not letting it become the crisis of the month,” Webb said. “Seeking to understand is good, but it has to end. We have to get to the action phase and take the next logical step.”
Some of that action has already begun, such as the formation of a permanent standing Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and Belonging, which reports directly to the Secretary of Defense and will be stood up in December, according to Kelly. Others include the establishment of ROTC scholarships for historically Black colleges and universities, general officer outreach and aviation mentorship programs, and diacritical accents on name tapes.
“(These name tapes) might seem like a simple thing, but it really has an impact as you try to build an inclusive culture,” said Kelly.
Speaking on changes designed to be help the Air Force be more inclusive, Webb detailed how his command started working on several initiatives to improve rated diversity. The steps taken have made significant strides in removing barriers for women and minorities, like updating height restriction policies, developing a maternity flight suit, and removing barriers in pilot selection and undergraduate pilot training classes. He added changes made at the ground level in the First Command will lead to more diversity in the service’s senior ranks in the future.
Webb also provided updates on actions AETC is championing for force development that add value to the entire service. Several initiatives underway such as transformation to pilot training and technical training, Air University curriculum updates for the great power competition, and treating Wi-Fi and on-demand access to technology as a utility that is essential to operations are helping AETC tailor programs to where Airmen are headed while retaining quality training and education.
“Quality is still job one,” said Webb. “Developing Airmen we need is at the root level for modernizing our air and space forces” to keep the competitive advantage over potential adversaries.
Webb closed the discussion by explaining the need to value and prioritize the AETC recruiting and instructor corps, the true force generators. Ensuring only top-quality enlisted Airmen and officers are selected to recruit, train and educate the next generation of Airmen and space professionals, is a key component of laying the foundation to a lethal and ready force.
“(Force generator) tours have to be valued because if you get it right at your foundational level in the First Command, (the Air Force is) well set going into the future,” Webb said.