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Airman: Save money by cutting in-residence PME

May. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Airmen form a flight during reveille at Air Force Senior NCO Academy. To save money, a senior master sergeant suggests eliminating in-residence professional military education.
Airmen form a flight during reveille at Air Force Senior NCO Academy. To save money, a senior master sergeant suggests eliminating in-residence professional military education. (Air Force)
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When Air Force leaders put out an all-call to airmen for ideas on how to save money, one senior master sergeant had an idea.

When Air Force leaders put out an all-call to airmen for ideas on how to save money, one senior master sergeant had an idea.

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When Air Force leaders put out an all-call to airmen for ideas on how to save money, Senior Master Sgt. Jason Eden responded with what he thought could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in the face of potentially catastrophic budget cuts: End in-residence professional military education.

Eden, superintendent for the 42nd Force Support Squadron at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., says he knows it’s a radical idea — the Air Force has offered some form of in-residence instruction since its inception.

But it could work because most airmen already get their PME through distance courses, he says, and the money saved would be an immediate infusion to fill the $1.8 billion shortfall in the service’s overseas contingency operations funding for the war in Afghanistan. Not to mention the additional budget cuts looming because of sequestration.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” Eden said.

He submitted his idea to the Every Dollar Counts Campaign, unveiled at the end of March by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer. Ideas are being accepted through June 1, which also is the internal deadline for the Air Force to decide if it will make any cuts to PME because of sequestration.

The case for distance learning

Just under 10,000 enlisted airmen and about 1,500 officers attended in-residence PME in 2012 at a cost of about $6,300 per officer and between $4,500 to $5,150 per enlisted airman for travel and per diem, according to data provided by Air University. In-residence PME courses run from six weeks to 10 months.

Eden estimates the Air Force spends between $10 million and $20 million each year on in-residence PME. Hisestimate doesn’t include housing for officers and dependents, or the manning hours lost at the operational location.

Add the temporary duty and per diem cost for the enlisted side of the house to the equation, and Eden said it’s not hard to believe the Air Force could find tens of millions of dollars — if not hundreds of millions — in savings, especially as the service prepares to furlough its civilian workforce and potentially increase the workload of its military members.

“If you factor in the thousands per year that are doing this, just Air Force-wide, I mean the costs are staggering,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to have and the networking you can get out of it is good, but we have to do something smarter.”

His solution to ending in-residence PME across all services calls for increasing the use of distance and online learning. Last year, 10,340 enlisted airmen and 12,390 officers took PME through correspondence courses.

By using a strictly distance-learning and Web-based instruction approach, the service could also wipe out the ongoing backlog of people waiting to attend in-residence courses, and many of the experience-based leadership skills airmen need can be learned on the job, Eden said.

“Nobody is going to sell me on the idea you become a sharp leader after six weeks,” he said. “You learn leadership on a day-to-day basis through time and experience.”

Why keep in-residence PME

Some skills need to be learned in a school environment, where people can fail and learn from their mistakes, said Bruce Murphy, vice president of academic affairs at Air University, Ala.

“Demonstrating skills in something like counseling — to demonstrate that they can do that — it’s difficult to do that in a distance mode,” he said. “If you quit doing in-residence PME, you certainly wouldn’t see it in the next month, but the erosion of that trained leadership would happen.”

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody said eliminating in-residence PME would no doubt save money, but he also believes it would cost the service.

“[Attending in-residence PME] is valuable because our airmen lead people and you’ve got to put a good percentage of them in front of people and let them build on those techniques and take that education into an environment that’s controlled by academics to kind of see it before you do it,” he said.

Enlisted PME Next

The Air Force’s push to revamp enlisted PME, using a hybrid of in-residence and Web-based instruction, will provide the best of both worlds, Cody said.

Air Force officials are working to implement EPME Next, focusing on the Senior NCO Academy first, followed by the NCO Academy, Cody said.

“We need to learn the lessons of the transition for the Senior NCO Academy and then the NCO Academy to see what the impact might be and what’s the best result for that level of PME because our Airman Leadership School is the first line of PME, and it’s very much so about front-line supervisor leadership,” he said. “We know 100 percent of our airmen are going to get exposed to that if they become staff sergeants so we want to make sure they all have that experience.”

PME in budget crosshairs

The Air Force will take between four and six years to fully implement EPME Next, but the timeline hinges on the state of the budget, Cody said. As it stands, the service has yet to decide whether it will have to suspend PME that requires TDY assignments such as Squadron Officer School and the noncommissioned officer academies before fiscal 2013 ends Sept. 30. A suspension would affect about 5,212 enlisted airmen and 2,412 officers, Air Force officials have said.

Cody said the service could make a decision sometime around the first week of June, possibly as early as June 1.

“If we get the reprogramming authority that we’ve requested, then it will enable us to make some of the decisions we need to make,” he said.

Eden hopes Air Force leaders will do the math on how much in-residence PME costs and consider his idea.

“My biggest thing is, with the budgetary cuts in mind and the fact that we’re having to downsize, we’re cutting very critical programs; we’re cutting manning and critical equipment throughout DoD, not just the Air Force,” he said. “I feel we need to do something drastic to keep our forces in tact.”

Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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