A new slate of diversity and inclusion initiatives from top Air Force leaders seeks to improve the diversity of key career fields such as pilots, developmental positions such as aides-de-camp and executive officers, and of its recruiting efforts.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Friday will publicly unveil the service's second slate of diversity and inclusion initiatives that seek to improve opportunities for airmen such as women and minorities. James announced the first round of diversity initiatives in March 2015.

They briefed other top Air Force leaders on the initiatives at the Corona meeting at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Sept. 28. The Air Force's senior leaders gather three times each year at meetings dubbed Corona, after a summit convened in 1961 by former Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay.

In a Sept. 29 interview with the two leaders, James told Air Force Times the proposals will help the Air Force recruit, retain and develop an increasingly diverse workforce.

"This is the way America is," James said. "America is a diverse population, and we don't want to shut down pieces of the population from which we can recruit. We want the best we can possibly get from all sectors."

People from different populations and backgrounds can often bring fresh talents and perspectives to the table that can help the Air Force solve its problems, James and Goldfein said. For example, Goldfein said in the interview, as the Air Force increasingly builds coalitions with militaries from other nations around the world, having a more diverse force can help forge those international relationships.

"This is not about social engineering," Goldfein said. "This is about maintaining a competitive advantage."

"The challenges we face as a nation are not getting less complex, they're getting more complex," Goldfein continued. "Having a diverse group of leaders, having a diverse group of airmen that are representative of the nation, that can come together and bring those diverse backgrounds and [ways of] thinking, to provide creative solutions to some of these complex challenges is as much a warfighting imperative as it is about improving our Air Force."

Basic trainees form up early to prepare to march to the parade grounds at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for their graduation ceremony. The Air Force is rolling out several new initiatives to increase diversity in its ranks, including in its recruiting efforts.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios/Air Force

Some of the biggest changes have to do with improving the opportunities for women and minority airmen to serve in the jobs that often groom airmen for top leadership positions.

For example, James said, the Air Force will require the pool of airmen considered for key military developmental positions – such as aides-de-camp, military assistants, executive officers, career field managers, senior enlisted advisors, and commander's action group members – to include at least one qualified, diverse candidate. However, the new policy does not require Air Force leaders to select a diversity candidate for these roles.

When deciding on a diversity candidate, James said the Air Force could look at anything from the airman's gender, to race, to career field, to background, and experience. This means the diversity requirement could be filled with, for example, a black man, a white woman, or a prior-enlisted airman.

Goldfein said his aide-de-camp is an Air National Guardsman who works part-time. And as a result, he brings a different background and perspective to the table. Those kind of diverse backgrounds could help improve how the service thinks and solves problems, he said.

James described this as the Air Force adopting the National Football League's so-called "Rooney Rule." This policy, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for its top jobs. James said other businesses such as Facebook and Amazon.com have adopted similar policies.

The Air Force also aims to encourage more women and minorities to pursue jobs in career fields that have historically been largely white and male. Operational career fields – such as pilots, air battle managers, combat systems officers, space and missile airmen, cyber airmen and intelligence – are especially lacking in diversity, the Air Force said. The Air Force will require leaders in these fields to come up with plans to address the underlying causes of the lack of diversity, and find ways to improve recruitment and retention of women and minorities.

This is particularly important, the Air Force said, because the service draws many of its leaders from such operational career fields. And if those jobs are largely white, it has a ripple effect that results in the service's top leadership lacking diversity.

"Sometimes, young people just have a failure of imagination," James said. "They never dream that they could do such a thing, and it's hard to dream if you don't have enough role models to look up to."

"What we're trying to do is open up the aperture, so all different types of people realize that they too can go into these career fields," James continued. "It's partly an educational thing, it's partly making sure that those functional managers who are charged with developing this young talent are, too, thinking of diversity. We need to make sure there is diverse representation on those panels" selecting airmen for jobs.

The effects of this lack of diversity could also be shown in the service's promotion rates, which tend to show minority airmen having lower promotion selection rates than white airmen. Nelson Lim, a researcher and social scientist at the Rand Corp., who co-authored a 2014 study on improving diversity in the Air Force officer corps, said that the service's promotion board process is not inherently biased against minorities – but it does give an advantage to officers in operational roles. And since most of those officers tend to be white, it follows that they are the ones who benefit from that advantage.

Lim's 2014 study found that when minority and female officers were compared to white male officers with nearly identical records, they were promoted at the same rate 93 percent of the time. Lim told Air Force Times earlier this year that suggests the Air Force's promotion system is not systematically biased.

The Air Force plans to require development teams and command selection boards, which are tasked with choosing officers for leadership positions, be made up of a diverse set of leaders. An implementation memo spelling out how this requirement, as well as others on the list, will be released in mid-October, James said.

Leaders will now be required to undergo training to combat unconscious bias – which could influence how people view and evaluate others, even if they don't realize it – immediately before promotion boards, development team meetings on school assignments, civilian hiring panels, and annual performance evaluations. The Air Force already requires unconscious bias training, but the new policy focuses the timing of this training to tie it to events that could affect other airmen's careers.

Maj. Joshua Boudreaux and Maj. Jason Curtis are greeted by their children after performing their first Delta Formation sortie Jan. 13, 2015, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The Air Force is changing some of its family policies as part of an overall effort to increase diversity in its ranks.

Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez/Air Force

In fiscal 2018, Air Force recruiters will get a new slate of advanced data analytic capabilities – including microtargeting tools – that will help them target a diverse set of communities and find new markets, such as schools, in which the Air Force hasn't been able to tap talent. As part of this effort, the Air Force Recruiting Service will play a greater role in deciding where to place recruiters around the nation, so they are in communities where they can be most effective.

This effort will also include upgrading recruiters' tools from a process that uses pen-and-paper and office computers, to using mobile handheld devices to better target new recruits, James said.

But James said the Air Force is already getting started on improving its recruitment in underserved areas. The Air Force is launching a pilot program to improve recruiting in New England, where recruiters have typically not done well, she said. Recruiters for the active, Guard and Reserve branches, as well as civilian recruiters, will be working together to share leads and help one another, James said.

That could mean that, if an active-duty recruiter finds a potential recruit is interested in the Air Force, but doesn't want to make a full-time military commitment, the recruiter could steer the candidate toward a Guard or Reserve or civilian recruiter.

And the Air Force is going to add $2.8 million per year to its ROTC program to fund about 200 more scholarships for cadets. James said the Air Force also plans to boost college internship opportunities by 200 per year over the next five years. Those internships will also be spread throughout the country, not clustered at Air Force headquarters.

James also said that, in their travels, she and Goldfein have heard complaints from airmen about the Air Force's family policies. So the Air Force is planning to give new mothers up to one year after they give birth to decide whether they want to opt out of their military service commitment. Currently, female airmen who are pregnant must make this decision before giving birth.

The problem with the current policy, James said, is that this forces women to make a choice before they can find out whether they can handle being a working mother – and the Air Force sometimes loses good airmen who may later have discovered they can juggle both parenthood and a military career. The Air Force is also planning to use its MyVector online mentoring system to match new parents up with airmen who have already been parents, for advice and support in balancing their families with their jobs.

"Sometimes, people will opt out because they worry," James said. "How can they possibly juggle career and family? This will give them a little more breathing room."

James cautioned that none of the initiatives will be a "silver bullet" that will fix diversity on its own. She hopes each will result in a little bit of improvement that, over time, adds up to bigger changes.

"We're all in a war for talent," James said.   "... And even though today, we're the best Air Force on the planet, we can't rest on our laurels. We have to get better and better and better."

The 13 new initiatives call for the Air Force to:

  • Have at least one qualified diversity candidate in each pool of airmen considered for key military developmental positions such as aide-de-camp, military assistant, executive officer, career field manager, senior enlisted advisor, and commander's action group member.
  • Boost the number of women and minority airmen serving in certain career fields that have historically lacked diversity – particularly operational fields such as pilots, air battle managers, combat systems airmen, space and missile airmen, cyber airmen, and intelligence.
  • Ensure the development teams and command selection boards that choose officers for leadership positions are made up of a diverse set of Air Force leaders.
  • Set up a human capital analytics office made up of data analysts and personnel experts to look for sources of new talent, study recruitment trends and their root causes, and help set policies that will increase retention.
  • Give recruiters advanced data analytic and microtargeting tools beginning in fiscal 2018 that will help them find untapped sources of new talent for the Air Force.
  • Improve the diversity of the Air Force's recruiting corps.
  • Add another 200 Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarships over the next five years at a cost of $2.8 million per year, and add 200 more internships over the next five years.
  • Require the Air Force Personnel Center's commander to sign off before dual-military couples are involuntarily separated by their assignments.
  • Allow female airmen who are pregnant up to 12 months after giving birth to decide whether they want to opt out of their service commitment. Now, female airmen must still decide whether to opt out or not before they give birth.
  • Have Air Force leaders receive training on unconscious bias immediately before key career events such as promotion boards.
  • Slash bureaucratic red tape when trying to accommodate airmen with disabilities.
  • Encourage civilians to participate in professional development programs.
  • Set up a Diversity and Inclusion Recognition Program in fiscal 2017.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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