Air Force cuts number of occupations available for reenlistment bonuses as retention flourishes

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The Air Force is making good on its goal to slim down on its diet of airmen after seeing extremely high retention rates.

A little more than two weeks ago, the Air Force’s top personnel officer, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, said the Air Force will start to take measures to steady its manning levels. Now, in response, the Air Force is slashing the number of occupations eligible for a reenlistment bonus by close to half.

In 2020, 72 jobs within the Air Force were able to get some extra cash if they reupped their contracts. That number will now decrease to 37 in 2021.

“Overall retention levels are at record highs and manning within many of our career fields is healthy,” Kelly, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in a release. “This reduces our requirement and opportunity to utilize retention bonuses to the same extent.”

The reenlistment program is designed to improve retention of experienced airmen and space professionals.

The Air Force attributes the high retention numbers in part to the economic environment around COVID-19.

Occupations that will still receive bonuses include a handful of pilot and maintainer positions, para-rescue, contracting, mental health services, some cyber positions, surgeons and explosive ordnance disposal.

Occupations that fell off the list include special mission pilots and cyber warfare operators.

In total, nine specialties were added and 40 were taken off the list.

“Manning levels have, in some cases, exceeded our requirements,” Kelly said earlier this month on a call with reporters. “In many areas, we probably don’t need as many offerings for the bonuses and opportunities for those retentions incentives as we’ve had in the past.”

The Air Force plans to spend about $55 million of retention bonuses in 2021.

For end strength in general, the Air Force was supposed to grow by about 900 to 333,700 active duty airmen in 2020. Kelly said the service met that goal, and it actually ended up about 900 above that benchmark.

“Over the last five years, we’ve been able to build back about 23,000 members back into the inventory to fill a lot of holes,” Kelly said.

It wasn’t long ago when the Air Force was begging for aircraft maintainers and was dealing with a 4,000 airmen shortfall. With bonuses, incentives, training and new talent management initiatives, the service filled that gap in only a few years. It’s still hunting for more senior maintainers, but feels like it’s in a much better position than in the past.

Pilot retention has been a thorn in the paw of the Air Force for a while now. Kelly said the pilot shortage continues to hover around 2,000.

However, coronavirus has changed the dynamics of the pilot market as many of the Air Force’s fliers were leaving for airlines after being trained.

The service saw a small uptick in pilots staying in the military this summer.

“The Air Force is using existing policy that allows members with an approved future retirement or separation date to withdraw their retirement/separation or extend their retirement/separation date,” Lt. Col. Malinda Singleton told Federal News Network. “We started this effort on March 11 by sending a message to 575 rated officers. Normally, airmen with an approved separation date are limited to requesting an extension to their date of separation of 90 days or less. However, under this program we offer extensions of up to 12 months. Over 40 rated officers have taken advantage and extended their separation date more than 90 days.”

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