SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Teaching someone how to do something has been fairly standard over the years: a teacher teaches, a student learns and then executes the task.
That Industrial Age way of thinking has changed the past year or so in Air Education and Training Command as Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast has challenged training installations to move forward and be creative in how Airmen are trained and developed into mission-ready warfighters.
Chief Master Sgt. Juliet Gudgel, AETC command chief master sergeant, said Jan. 31, 2018, during a three-day visit to North Texas that Sheppard AFB is leading the charge on challenging the status quo, training Airmen in a different and meaningful way, and employs equipment and innovation in a way that creates a new and exciting experience for new Airmen entering the Air Force. It’s the new process of developing 21st century Airmen using 21st century tools and technology.
The chief said command authority has been pushed down to Numbered Air Force and installation commanders, which gives NCOs, officers and civilians an opportunity to focus on divergent thinking, a process that allows for multiple ideas and a team to narrow them down.
Airmen are now thinking laterally about how to solve a problem, she said.
“The Airmen we had breakfast with this morning, they are not thinking in an Industrial Age mindset,” she said. “They are thinking of the potential of how to change things and make things better. The leadership here is tapping into those minds and they’re listening to these Airmen’s ideas.”
An example, Gudgel said, is the use of virtual reality to perform a fear of heights assessment to gauge whether or not new Airmen in the 366th Training Squadron’s electrical systems apprentice course can work several feet above the ground on an electrical pole. The evaluation at the beginning of the course saves time and money for the Air Force while also putting Airmen in the right position that fits their strengths.
“In a short amount of time, we’ve been able to leverage technology and innovation, and innovation doesn’t always have to be technology,” she said. “Innovation is the way people think, the way we can do things more effectively. I’m excited to see what the next couple of years brings for our Air Force.”
Another example of breaking through traditional paradigms through the use of divergent thinking was when New Mexico Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Joshua Sandoval completed the avionics fundamentals and electronic warfare courses in less than a month, a feat that typically takes more than 90 academic days, collectively. Because of Sandoval’s education and experience in aviation before he entered the service, the 365th TRS was able to leverage his talents and save time for him, his unit and his mission.
The 10-in, 10-out phase of training where people enter and finish training together, theoretically, has to be challenged, Gudgel said. The more that can be done, the more attractive the Air Force will be to young men and women who have a specific skill set and want to join. She said if they are passionate about what they do while they’re in, that will result in higher retention rates.
There’s more to it, she said, than just the training portion. She said Airmen must also understand that they are valued and the expertise they bring to the force is valued.
“I see that Airmen are empowered,” she said. “They’re empowered to ask why. They’re empowered to make a contribution to change. They’re empowered to respectfully identify new ways to improve processes.”
Airman 1st Class Jade Netty of Sheppard’s NCO Academy is one such Airman the chief said she met during her visit. She said instructors and leadership of the NCOA raved about the support and hard work Netty puts in to make sure the mission of the academy is successful. She said they are thinking “outside the stripes” when it comes to the junior Airman, listening to her suggestions and what she brings to the team.
It is instances such as that, Gudgel said, that will help the Air Force move forward. She said the Air Force can’t think in terms of today, rather they have to be about tomorrow. Today’s Airmen are the leaders of tomorrow, she said, and they have to be allowed to ask, “Why?”
“If you can’t explain to an Airman why, then why are we doing it? Sometimes when an Airman asks why, we have to do some self-reflection and take a look at the situation and say, ‘Why are we doing it this way, because we’ve always done it this way? What’s a better solution?’” she said. “Those Airmen are helping us come up with those solutions. That’s what I see across Sheppard.”
At the end of the day, whether it’s producing mission-ready Airmen at Sheppard AFB and other AETC training installations, or launching an F-22 Raptor for an unknown mission, Gudgel said her No. 1 piece of advice to Airmen of all rank and position is to love what they do. A short-timer doing four or six years or a retirement-eligible senior NCO should remember what motivated them to join and serve and what keeps them performing at a high level.
“The advice I give is try your best, work hard. That sounds like the cliché answer, but help us make those changes,” she said. “Help us move forward.”