Back-to-back special duty assignments can hurt careers

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Richard Price
  • 360th Training Squadron
I arrived at Sheppard in June 2004, after spending 22 years in Air Mobility Command. I have been the 360th Training Squadron superintendent for two years now. Many individuals come to my office to ask for my recommendation to the commander for a follow-on special duty assignment. 

From my perspective, pulling back-to-back special duty assignments is not beneficial for career progression, and in my opinion, hurts your career field. 

For most people, working hard, completing professional military education and making the effort to be involved in professional organizations as well as the community makes for a well rounded individual and a strong record of performance, which is reflected on your personnel reports. 

Normally staying out of trouble and testing well will get you to master sergeant. The problems start when those who aspire to something more - senior and chief master sergeant - are not thoroughly advised on the consequences of decisions made as senior airmen, staff sergeants and technical sergeants. 

In this case, a back-to-back special duty assignment is the concern. Whether you are an instructor, military training leader or in one of many other special duties, the bottom line is you are away from your career field, and this is where the issue lies. 

As far as I know, no special duties take brand new Airmen. So it stands to reason that people selected for their first special duty would have at least a 5-skill level and three or more years of service. 

Currently the standard tour for instructors and MTLs is 48 months. Add to that another special duty of up to 48 months and you can quickly see that an Airmen can be away from their career field for eight years. 

I was recently approached by one of my instructors, a very sharp staff sergeant. He asked what I thought of him applying for a PME instructor position. I pointed out a few areas of concern that he had not considered. 

First was the fact that he had already been away from the flight line for almost three and a half years, and adding another three years would mean an absence of seven years from an operational unit - eight years if it was another 48-month special duty he was considering. 

The second point I shared with him was I was very confident that he would be at least a tech. sergeant if not a master sergeant by the time he returned to the flight line based on his current level of performance. 

I asked, "What do you think about being away from the operational environment for seven years coming back as a tech. or master sergeant and moving into a supervisory position?" 

In my 24-year career I have learned that change and technological advancement are a constant. Each of our career fields are benefiting from technology and ever improving ways of accomplishing the mission. 

How can someone stay abreast and proficient in new procedures and equipment operation if they are away for extended periods of time? A lot has changed in the past eight years. 

Consider a new staff sergeant with six years time in service is assigned to instructor duty for four years. This same individual is permitted a second four-year special duty. This Airman now has 14 years time in service, is very likely a tech. sergeant, if not a master sergeant, and has only six years of operational experience, and that experience was gained eight years ago. 

Third, I asked why he thought he should have a second special duty when there are others who have not had any and would like the chance for a career broadening experience. In today's high ops tempo Air Force with regular deployments, it is not unusual for Airmen to consider opportunities such as special duty assignments to have a period of relatively stable service. 

Fourth is my philosophy of special duties as I see it. We bring Airmen of all grades from the field to fill these special duty positions for a very important reason, primarily recent experience in their operational career field. This is twofold: the Airmen-in-training benefit from instructors and MTLs who use recent, real-world examples to support why the information or procedures being taught are important and relevant. Conversely, that instructor or MTL is returned with the skills learned in Air Education and Training Command to operational units so the field can benefit. 

Finally, I asked if he would like to have the opportunity to compete for senior or chief master sergeant in the future. He answered, as most do, "yes." Where a special duty is considered career broadening and a positive, too much time away from your core job is a negative. 

Senior and chief master sergeant promotion boards do more than just assign a board score to your records. Through the board process, they do their best to identify who has demonstrated the ability to lead the career field in the top two enlisted grades. How can you demonstrate your ability to lead through your EPR's if you have spent a considerable amount of time away from that career field? 

Gen. William R. Looney III, commander of AETC, and senior leadership have weighed in on this issue and stated several times that AETC is a "pass through command." What this means is that individuals bring their recent experience to AETC's mission to train Airmen, and then return to the combatant commands taking back what they have learned. 

This exchange is what makes the system work and makes the Air Force the best trained and strongest Air Force in the world.