The Air Force is going to make it easier for you to get a good job when you become a civilian again.
For thousands of airmen, a professional certification can be the difference between a lucrative post-Air Force career and unemployment.
Through the new Air Force Credentialing Opportunities On-Line, or Air Force COOL, airmen in 190 enlisted Air Force specialty codes — the vast majority of enlisted AFSCs, aside from unique career fields such as recruiting, first sergeant, military training instructor and honor guard — can get national, state and industry certifications or licenses. The program is similar to those of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The Coast Guard is working on its own version.
Helping airmen score the proper certifications and licenses before they take off their uniform is important, said J.R. Breeding, associate dean of academic programs at the Community College of the Air Force, which administers the program.
"You may have 20 years of experience maintaining aircraft," he said. "You could have a master's degree in aviation maintenance technology. But if you don't have the certification that's needed by the employers in the industry, your chances of getting a job after you retire is going to be very, very difficult, if that's the same discipline you want to work in when you retire."
The Air Force foots the bill for the application and administrative fees for both the test and the credential, up to $4,500, although most certifications and licenses don't cost that much. For airmen already credentialed through Air Force COOL, the service also covers the cost of refresher courses and recertifications after a few years, up to the $4,500 lifetime maximum and as long as they're still in the Air Force.
For most enlisted airmen, the COOL program will only pay for one certification. But senior non-commissioned officers can get a second credential in the leadership area, such as in project management, through COOL.
Airmen who need training for the initial certification exams will have to pay out of their own pocket — tuition assistance or the GI Bill can't be used for that training. But the Air Force's personnel office is considering whether to change the policy to cover the cost of such training.
'Win-win for everybody'
The program makes good business sense for the Air Force, Breeding said. Airmen who go through the certification process have to study and get up to speed on new concepts to prepare for their tests, meaning they'll broaden their knowledge and skills and get better at their current jobs.
"In the end, the Air Force is going to receive a more diverse and qualified airman," Breeding said. "It's a valuable payback of a small investment by the Air Force. It's a win-win for everybody."
The list of career fields that can qualify for certifications is vast. For example, airmen in maintenance career fields can qualify for an airframe and powerplant, or A&P license, which would allow them to get a lucrative job fixing passenger airliners. A security forces airman could be certified as a background investigator or a crime scene analyst. Enlisted medical airmen have a wide variety of medical certifications they can receive.
And nuclear weapons airmen could become a certified hazardous material manager or a registered environmental technician.
"I don't think there's an AFSC out there that doesn't have some kind of certification," Breeding said.
About 450 airmen signed up in March, when the program officially launched. When the program is running at full steam next year, the the Air Force expects it will help about 10,000 airmen a year. That's about how many sailors use the Navy's program annually.
To decide which certifications and licenses it will pay for, the Air Force studied the credentials that are out there and found which ones had training requirements and job skills that largely overlapped with enlisted career fields.
The tests are not offered or administered by the Air Force itself, but instead by outside vendors.
Difficult for reservists
Air Force Sergeants Association CEO Rob Frank said his organization wholeheartedly supports the COOL program.
"Now, when an individual steps out the door and they're going to go work in the same career field they did in the Air Force, it's an apples to apples comparison to their civilian counterparts and can more easily transition into a job," Frank said. "It certainly looks to be a good thing for our service members, especially if they transition out of the service."
While Frank feels COOL is a good start, he said he'd like to see it expanded so Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard members have more opportunities to take it. Guardsmen and reservists are eligible for the program, but to get the COOL program to pay for their certifications, they must be on Title 10 active duty status. Otherwise, their respective components must pay for their certifications.
"The reality is, when they're up on Title 10 orders, they are working hard to cram a lot into a short period of time," Frank said. "They won't necessarily have time to do that. Our Guardsmen and reservists, I hope the Air Force would like them prepared when they show up to the job. I think the Air Force should make this available to the total force at the time that meets their needs."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.