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Help wanted in the Reserve: Big bonuses, retraining opportunities and a way to stay Air Force

Feb. 24, 2014 - 08:27PM   |  
The Air Force is preparing to request a $5,000 increase to its enlisted affiliation bonuses — which are now $15,000 — that it will pay to active-duty airmen with the most critical skill sets who enter the Air Force Reserve.
The Air Force is preparing to request a $5,000 increase to its enlisted affiliation bonuses — which are now $15,000 — that it will pay to active-duty airmen with the most critical skill sets who enter the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force)
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The Air Force is preparing to request a $5,000 increase to its enlisted affiliation bonuses — which are now $15,000 — that it will pay to active-duty airmen with the most critical skill sets who enter the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force)

RESERVE OPPORTUNITIES

The Air Force Reserve Command’s top five in-demand career fields:
AIRCRAFT LOADMASTER
What they do: Ensure that cargo is loaded safely and securely and passengers are safe and comfortable aboard military cargo aircraft flying worldwide. Airmen supervise loading and unloading of cargo, vehicles and people on the aircraft; preplan correct load placement and distribution to ensure the aircraft can fly safely; and ensure that adequate restraints are in place to prevent the load from moving during flight.
Outlook for active-duty: Overmanned by 105 senior airmen and 179 staff sergeants; facing retention boards.
FIGHTER AVIONICS
What they do: Maintain and repair electronics, custom designed for each individual aircraft, on the A-10 close air support jet, F-16 and F-22 jet fighters, and the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.
Outlook for active-duty: Overmanned fighter avionics airmen facing retention boards include: 30 fighter aircraft integrated avionics craftsmen in the rank of master sergeant; 76 senior airmen and 75 staff sergeants who work on A-10s and U-2s; 34 senior airmen who work on F-15s; 35 senior airmen who work on F-22s; and 36 senior airmen who work on unmanned aircraft.
FLIGHT ENGINEER
What they do: Monitor all aircraft engine and control systems while in flight. Airmen perform pre-flight and post-flight inspections, and aerospace maintenance, loadmaster and other functions when the aircraft is away from home station.
Outlook for active-duty: Flight engineers are overmanned by 60 staff sergeants, 102 technical sergeants and 41 master sergeants. Three chief master sergeants who are flight engineer managers are also overmanned. All are facing retention boards.
GEOSPATIAL INTELLIGENCE
What they do: Analyze images obtained from satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles and other sources. Airmen must discriminate between what is normal and what could be a threat, and use advanced multisensor imagery techniques. They also have to determine what is being purposely kept out of view by enemy forces.
Outlook for active-duty: GEOINT analysts are overmanned by 83 in the senior airman ranks and facing retention boards.
SPACE SYSTEMS OPERATIONS
What they do: Airmen track satellites, detect missiles and participate in rocket launches. They operate the Global Positioning System used for navigation by military forces around the world.
Outlook for active-duty: Overmanned by 18 technical sergeants, seven master sergeants and five senior master sergeants and facing retention boards.
Source: Air Force Reserve Command/staff research. Photos: Air Force Reserve Command.
KEEP YOUR BENEFITS

In addition to bonuses, here are three other benefits available to airmen looking to leave active duty for the reserve:
1 Health care. Airmen in the reserve can enroll in Tricare Reserve Select.
Tricare Reserve Select allows qualified reserve airmen and their families to receive care from any Tricare-authorized provider. It requires users to pay a monthly premium, and it costs the user more than Tricare Prime, but annual deductibles can be as low as $50.
The plan also is available worldwide and meets the minimum essential coverage under the Affordable Care Act, according to the Tricare website.
2 Education benefits. Continued service in the reserve means airmen remain eligible for tuition assistance, freeing them up to transfer their post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to a family member.
3 Commissaries and more. Airmen who transition to the reserve get to keep their military identification cards, giving them access to military posts and commissaries.

Thousands of airmen at risk of being cut in the drawdown could find a parachute in the Air Force Reserve.

Thousands of airmen at risk of being cut in the drawdown could find a parachute in the Air Force Reserve.

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Thousands of airmen at risk of being cut in the drawdown could find a parachute in the Air Force Reserve.

And going reserve may become a little sweeter. The Air Force is preparing to request a $5,000 increase to its enlisted affiliation bonuses — which are now $15,000 — that it will pay to active-duty airmen with the most critical skill sets who enter the reserve.

The Air Force has already expanded its Palace Chase program, allowing active-duty airmen to serve the rest of their time in the Air National Guard or reserve. Palace Chase normally makes enlisted airmen serve two years in the Guard or reserve for every year of active duty they have left; and officers, three years for every year left.

And with more than 23,000 active duty airmen potentially facing voluntary or involuntary separation this year under a sweeping set of force management programs, the Air Force Reserve is bracing for a potentially massive flood of job seekers.

“We want to be the catcher’s mitt for as many of those good airmen as we can,” Air Force Reserve Command chief Lt. Gen. James Jackson said in a Feb. 13 interview. “We want to be in the right place at the right time to give those airmen an opportunity to continue to serve in the Air Force Reserve.”

Jackson said he is “pretty optimistic” that the increased affiliation bonuses will get approved so the reserve can begin offering them in fiscal 2015. But they may not be available until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Jackson said he hopes the Defense Department will include the bonus increase in its budget request to be released March 4, and that it will be passed as part of the next National Defense Authorization Act.

New enlisted reservists who come from active duty and accept the current $15,000 affiliation bonuses agree to stay in either three or six years, depending on their career field. The proposed $20,000 affiliation bonus would go to active-duty airmen entering some of the reserve’s most in-demand career fields, Jackson said. They would have to agree to a service commitment of six years. Some active- duty officers also now can receive a $10,000 affiliation bonus if they join the reserve and commit to three years of service, but the Air Force Reserve is not planning to increase officer bonuses.

Recruiters heading your way

The reserve is trying to reach out to airmen who are at risk of being separated in this drawdown and encourage them to sign up. Recruiters are traveling to bases around the nation and appearing at town halls and other types of meetings discussing force management.

Starting Feb. 16, AFRC will begin a “surge” effort to send additional recruiters to some of the bases it expects will see the greatest numbers of airmen being separated, and help process applicants. AFRC, which is based at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, had planned to start the surge the week of Feb. 10, but was snowed in and unable to send those recruiters as planned, AFRC recruiting director Col. Steve Fulaytar said.

Those bases — Travis Air Force Base in California, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., which will handle Pentagon airmen facing cuts — historically see high numbers of separating airmen, Fulaytar said, and that trend is likely to increase due to the force management cuts.

The AFRC has in-service recruiters at most Air Force installations. When active-duty airmen leave the Air Force, they are required to visit one of those recruiters as part of their outprocessing.

If they express an interest in joining the reserve and sign up, recruiters begin processing their application.

Fulaytar said the reserve is most interested in recruiting flight engineers, aircraft loadmasters and airmen in space systems operations, geospatial intelligence and fighter avionics.

And while the active-duty force is eliminating a wide range of ranks in those fields, the reserve will focus more on recruiting lower-ranking active-duty airmen, such as senior airmen, staff sergeants and technical sergeants, Fulaytar said. Master sergeants and senior master sergeants are likely to be closer to retirement age, he said, and less likely to consider joining the reserves.

Jobs for up to 10,000

Even with thousands of newly cut active-duty airmen as potential recruits, Jackson said the size of the Air Force Reserve is not likely to increase considerably beyond its current end strength of roughly 70,000. But the larger pool of departing active-duty troops could allow the reserve to be more selective and bring in the best airmen with the most in-demand skills to replace the roughly 8,000 to 10,000 who leave each year through attrition.

“We have a window of opportunity here,” Jackson said. “We have to be proactive and capture these members. If not, this opportunity is going to be lost.”

And joining the reserve gives airmen more flexibility in how he serves, Jackson said. Some can serve full time, and others can serve part time in a variety of different programs.

And there can be retraining opportunities for airmen who are interested in learning critical skills, such as becoming loadmasters for C-5s and C-17s or flight engineers for C-5s, Jackson said. However, the Air Force Reserve is not planning any special retraining programs to accompany the force management programs.

“We do allow members to retrain,” Jackson said. “As long as there is a requirement and a vacancy that we can bring them into, there’s nothing that prevents them from retraining into a different” career field.

However, opportunities for special forces — the career field that is likely to see the greatest number of cuts under force management — could be limited in the Air Force Reserve. Some bases might need security forces, Fulaytar said, but the need is not widespread.

Growing interest

The Air Force Reserve is already seeing more interest from active-duty airmen. The percentage of Air Force Reserve recruits with prior military service has increased from 48 percent last year to 54 percent now, Fulaytar said.

Jackson said he hopes to keep those numbers above 50 percent. New reserve recruits with no prior experience must be trained just like active-duty recruits, which Jackson said costs about $500,000 per recruit. Bringing in experienced recruits allows the reserve to avoid that expense.

Fulaytar also said that on average the past four years, about 480 new recruits came in through Palace Chase annually. He hopes that number will increase this year, but would not predict how much it might increase.

But handling what could be a crush of new potential recruits could prove daunting, and the reserve is trying to get out in front of that. It usually takes the Air Force Personnel Center three months to process an enlisted airman’s Palace Chase application, and six months to process an officer’s.

To keep those times from slipping, Fulaytar said the reserve is temporarily doubling the number of full-time reserve airmen — from two to four — who process Palace Chase applications.

Army sweetens its offer, too

Like the Air Force, the Army Reserve and Army National Guard also are hoping to benefit from the Army’s projected active-duty losses of up to 80,000 soldiers.

The two components are offering bonuses of up to $20,000 to soldiers who transition to the Guard or reserve. The Army will launch a pilot program at Fort Hood at the end of March that allows recruiters to engage with transitioning soldiers up to one year before their separation date. Typically, career counselors can’t formally engage or write contracts until soldiers are six months from their separation date.

The idea is to give soldiers more time to determine if there is a vacancy matching their job skill in the area or community they intend to live and work, said Col. Rich Baldwin, the Army Guard’s G-1 (personnel).

Some soldiers also can leave active duty a year early under the pilot program.

And both the Army and Air Force see promoting reserve service as a solution to a problem stemming from their force cuts: losing strong troops with vital skills, in whom the military has invested significant time, energy and money, who just happen to be in overmanned fields.

Jackson and Fulaytar said that joining the Air Force Reserve is a way for good, talented airmen — who nonetheless could be separated through force management programs — to keep serving their nation and putting their skills to use.

“You’re still a value to the Air Force, and the Air Force Reserve is a good place to come and continue to serve,” Fulaytar said.

______

Michelle Tan contributed to this report.

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