Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to Airmen Leadership School students at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The Air Force intends to overhaul its enlisted professional military education. (Airman 1st Class Jason Couillard / Air Force)
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Before the Air Force decided to make changes aimed at getting noncommissioned officers through leadership training sooner, curriculum changes were already in the works.
It's all about providing more hands-on, practical training, said officials who oversee the enlisted professional military education.
Airmen have often complained that their EPME is too little, too late.
"By the time the average NCO/SNCO attended the NCO/SNCO Academy, they were already well-versed about counseling, writing [enlisted performance reports], solving problems, etc," said retired senior NCO Thomas Lane.
That's about to change, said officials with the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
Starting Oct. 1, senior airmen and staff sergeants attending ALS — the first level of professional military education for airmen — will go through a five-week course that will focus more on day-to-day experiences they may face as new NCOs, such as writing a decoration, completing an enlisted performance report and writing a letter of counseling, before they ever actually have to do it.
Master Sgt. Obia Clark, superintendent of ALS, said airmen will get more feedback and evaluation of their leadership skills while learning what they will need to do as first-line supervisors.
"We're providing them a learning lab," Clark said, "an opportunity to practice the supervisory task in an environment where they can get critical and honest feedback without hurting an airman's career."
The shift in focus squares with the Air Force's EPME-Next, an effort to get airmen into leadership training at a faster pace — based on their time in service instead of their paygrade — and provide more hands-on management training.
It's not yet clear how much time in service will be required for each level of PME: Development of PME-Next is expected to take three years, Air Force officials said.
But already the curriculum changes are beginning at ALS. More instruction hours have been devoted to personal leadership development, and 13 assignments have been added to the communications module of the course.
"We talk about face-to-face leadership," Clark said. "One of the things we're doing in our communication module is we're addressing risky behaviors, and those are things like suicide, substance abuse and workplace violence.
"Normally those are topics that people might be a little apprehensive about addressing, because they are sensitive topics," she said. "In our communications module, we give airmen a safe environment to practice addressing those issues with their subordinates so that they are a little bit more armed when their subordinates come to them with a sexual assault issue or substance abuse issue. They're not blindsided."
Clark said the goal also is for airmen not to be surprised by the sheer number of demands on their attention as first-line supervisors.
"Our courses are rigorous and rapid-fire," she said. "In a work center, airmen are handling multiple tasks. They have to prioritize and get these things done. We've designed a bit of stress [into the course], and what better place to practice than in a classroom environment?"
Small-scale testing of the new ALS curriculum is underway at 10 U.S. bases and two bases overseas, and about 500 airmen have gone through the revamped course. Clark said the feedback has been good.
The new curriculum is expected to be ready Oct. 1 to roll out to all 68 schools, where about 16,000 airmen attend ALS in-residence each year. Another 9,000 members of the Guard and Reserve take the course online.
ALS isn't the only EPME that is undergoing change.
The service began using a more personal leadership- and communications-focused curriculum at the NCO Academy last year and is awaiting final approval of a recent revamp of the curriculum at the Senior NCO Academy.
Senior Master Sgt. Karen Plunkett, superintendent of the NCO Academy professional military education program, said a 400 percent increase in directives from headquarters Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drove a decision to overhaul the curriculum. Those directives needed to be incorporated into the academic hours allowed for each course.
"The changes at the NCO Academy are very similar [to those at ALS]," Plunkett said of the revised NCO Academy curriculum. "We spent a lot of time on self-assessment, communication and things like adaptability, resiliency and leadership under pressure."
Senior Master Sgt. Keith McCabe, superintendent of the Senior NCO Academy curriculum team, said the Air Force is in the process of wrapping up the first revision in 12 years of curriculum that is taught to about 2,200 E-7s and E-8s each year from all branches of the service. Like ALS and the NCO Academy, the SNCO is putting more emphasis on self, peer and instructor assessment.