As airmen know painfully well, morale in the Air Force today is not “pretty darn good” … despite former Chief of Staff Mark Welsh’s notorious assertion in Senate testimony earlier this year.
As we discussed here recently, Welsh hadn’t even bothered assessing morale. He was basically pulling his response out of thin air. Had he taken a legitimate measurement, it would have forced him to admit the service is in the worst shape in its history … undersized, task saturated, and burned out. Sidestepping an official record of such conclusions is why the service continues to conveniently misplace morale assessments rather than complete and communicate them.
But none of this is stopping airmen from having their own discussion about morale. For the past several months, it’s been a live topic across social media, as even the diehards have begun wondering aloud how the Air Force will retain enough talent to sustain itself without a significant improvement in the fundamentals of service life. Occasionally, these musings produce ingenious commentary and valuable ideas.
The comment below, left under the name “Greg L.” as a response to a recent article chronicling the service’s neglect of morale, is a great example. It is simple, correct, and brimming with inconvenient truths. Greg offers a straightforward prescription, channeling in digestible form what countless other airmen have been thinking and arguing for a long time now.
Take a look for yourself. Analysis interspersed.
1. Hire more people. Lean sounds great until there’s not enough people to do the job. People who get to go home on time have better morale.
Even the aloof Welsh acknowledged that the Air Force was 18% understaffed in late 2015, which equates to roughly 60,000 airmen. This means when Welsh and his personnel staff decided to cut 19,000 airmen in a single year (instead of the five year timeline authorized by Congress), the organization was already short roughly the number of people who comprise Pacific Air Forces. And they still thought it was a good idea, moving forward with it despite advice and protest to the contrary.
Think about that. The Air Force was already trying to cover for a missing Major Command when it cashiered an additional 40 squadrons worth of airmen. Whatever short-term savings were harvested in that gambit will be totally eclipsed by the tangible and intangible costs of understaffing.
The people who took this wrecking ball to the service have pretty much all been promoted, but that’s not the most important point. What matters most now is that the Air Force remains in an unsustainable manpower posture, and understaffing is now creating conditions that lead to declining retention and even worse understaffing.
If the service can’t hire 60,000 people, it needs to shed the equivalent workload. Right now, that workload is being carried by airmen in addition to their own jobs, and it is breaking the service.
2. PME- Less of it and if it’s so important, then make it in-residence so that it’s not sharing time with 20 other tasks. Frankly, if it’s not important enough to justify in residence, then everyone can probably do just fine without it.
If intellectual development is the point of PME, the current setup is self-defeating. People aren’t in it to learn. They’re in it to get it done as quickly as possible.
People need time and focus to learn new concepts and change the way they think. PME in today’s enlisted force seems less like development and more like a coercive device to continually assess how committed airmen are to career advancement. Greg is spot-on. If it’s important, it should be done professionally. If it’s not being done professionally, it must not be important, and should therefore cease immediately.
Some years ago, there was a proposal on the Air Staff that officers and enlisted airmen enrolled in distance learning PME courses be given a day of authorized absence every work week to focus on the material. The proposal died quickly when A1 declared it would leave units too short of manpower to get the job done. This was an admission that we were expecting airmen to do PME outside of duty hours, which is unacceptable. In a healthy service, this would have triggered a policy change. Instead, PME requirements have grown for enlisted members in the years since, though they have eased for officers.
Either give people time to work on PME, or take PME off the plate, period. More importantly, if PME can’t be done professionally, don’t do it at all. Nothing is more injurious to morale than being forced to do half-assed work of no constructive value.
3. Fitness – somewhere between what passed for fit in the 80’s USAF and a recon marine there has to be a standard that’s realistic for the majority of the force. Preferably one that doesn’t demand huge amounts of already precious time. Jobs that demand higher levels of fitness should probably find ways to make time for it.
Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso has already signaled that it’s time for this kind of thinking. The thing about hiring, developing, and retaining smart people is that you can’t bullshit them and you can’t expect them to idly accept or tolerate bullshit. The fitness program is a monument of it. It demands an over-investment of time and effort in physical training for the vast majority of a force that doesn’t need an elevated fitness level to carry out its part of the fight. People know this, and they question that over-investment. The answers they’re given are riddled with more bullshit as well as circular logic and galloping premises. This morphs the fitness issue into a larger issue about core values and honesty. It also makes fitness part of the morale problem.
Let us have done with it. Eliminate the waist measurement and empower commanders to police exaggerated waistlines that present an unprofessional appearance, since that’s what the waist measurement is really all about anyway. This is how integrity is supposed to operate at the organizational level.
Adjust the remainder of the test as Greg suggests, with fitness requirements indexed to actual job requirements. For most of the force, fitness should be decoupled from performance appraisals. Those who come up short should be given help to improve. The past decade has proven that going about it the other way results in superb airmen — people we desperately need — being pushed out of the service on what amounts to arbitrary rationale.
4. Training – how about we figure out whats really needed and delete all the extraneous time wasting crap. Half the CBT’s are a waste of time, we all know it, why can’t we get rid of them. It’s only time right?
Time after time, well-meaning generals have fallen into the trap of doing a study to determine which CBTs to continue and which to terminate … only to basically nibble around the edges of this problem rather than put a significant dent in it. Gen. Dave Goldfein and his team seem to have taken a stride or two beyond this traditional failure pattern, but they need to go further.
Here’s an idea for realizing Greg’s vision: suspend all CBTs with immediate effect, presuming that they’re all worthless rather than presuming they all have value. Require the functional lead responsible for each to make the case to a specially appointed general officer for why a given CBT should be re-instituted. Empower that judge with final decision authority as well as the authority to institute or direct pursuit of waivers for requirements that have been forced upon the service by bureaucrats outside the department. Make sure the judge is someone acutely attuned to the time challenges faced by street-level airmen. And make sure the judge is a no-nonsense leader intolerant of stupidity and willing to kill it where it stands.
That would show seriousness, and shifting presumptions would signal that the service is finally in touch with the mess it has created over time. More studies and nibbles won’t do.
Greg’s closing flourish:
Improving morale is as simple as letting people have back some of the time that has been stolen from them by needless bullshit. Time is the most precious commodity there is, and simply giving it back to the troops will mean more than pretty new dorms or refurbished base housing or more selection at the commissary. Time to have a life is what people want, lack of it is whats driving people out.
What Greg is saying … is that somewhere along the line, being in the Air Force became about living to work rather than working to live. If there is to be a future Air Force worthy of the name, that has to change.
Some of what Greg recommends is beyond the service’s direct control, but most of it can be done outright and all of it can be influenced. It’s time the Air Force got serious about taking care of itself, which requires taking care of its airmen. By following Greg’s simple prescription, the Air Force can improve morale until it is truly “pretty darn good.”