The Air Force on Tuesday unveiled the biggest changes to enlisted professional military education in three years.

Under the new program, called Enlisted Professional Military Education for the 21st Century, or EPME 21, Airman Leadership School, the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, and the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer Academy will be 100 percent in-residence, "allowing all active duty, Guard and reserve airmen an opportunity to attend ... prior to promotion," according to a release Tuesday. The changes are effective immediately. 

"Airmen should be excited about this," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said in a video posted online Tuesday. "Number one, it allows them to have a laser focus on the mission. This flexibility also extends into their family time, and the time that they utilize to develop themselves through EPME or other educational opportunities."

Previously, some airmen who fell out of specific time-in-service windows would not be allowed to attend those academies after taking the Course 15 distance learning program for NCOs or the Course 14 version 6 distance learning program for SNCOs, said Senior Master Sgt. Katherine Grabham, Wright's special adviser.

For example, an airman could only attend the NCO academy if he had between eight and 12 years of service and was an E-6 or E-6 select or in the top 10 percent of the nonselect promotion board. In addition, an airman also could only attend the SNCO academy if he had between 13 and 18 years of service and was a master sergeant or senior master sergeant.

But now, Grabham said, the new system broadens the opportunity for airmen to attend the academies. For example, airman will no longer be barred from attending the SNCO academy if they have more than 18 years of service, she said.

End of time-in-service rules

The Air Force is also eliminating time-in-service milestones it set in 2014 for distance learning eligibility.

Until now, non-commissioned officers were told they were eligible for the Course 15 distance learning program when they reached seven years of service, and senior NCOs were told they were eligible for Course 14 version 6 distance learning at their 12-year mark.

But now, airmen will only have to complete these distance learning programs as a prerequisite to attending their NCO and SNCO in-residence academies, not based on their time-in-service.

In the release, Wright said the shift away from the time-in-service model restores the system to the way it was for nearly 43 years and "just makes sense."

The so-called "continuum of learning" based on rank instead of longevity will provide airmen greater flexibility and time, Wright said, and allow them to focus on their mission and their families.

"While this [time-in-service-based] model was effective for some, we quickly found it didn't meet the needs of all our airmen, causing many NCOs to lose the opportunity to attend in-residence at all," Wright said. "Providing airmen with the appropriate PME at the right times in their career is a must. If we deliver it too soon, it's not effective for where they are in their careers. If we deliver it too late, it's not effective at all."

For example, a staff sergeant who found himself enrolled in the SNCO Course 14 has the option of finishing the course and receiving credit, or disenrolling without any penalty.

"We want to get away from having airmen enrolled in distance learning courses that are not commensurate with their current grade," Wright said.

Airman Leadership School is mandatory for airmen who hope to be promoted to staff sergeant, the NCO academy is required for promotion to master sergeant, the SNCO academy is required for promotion to senior master sergeant, and the Chief Leadership Course is required for promotion to chief master sergeant.

New requirements

Under the old system, airmen received their PME ribbon and credit after they finished their Course 14 or 15 distance learning courses. 

Airmen who previously completed the Course 14 or 15 distance learning courses, but did not attend the in-resident PME courses, will be grandfathered in and will still receive credit without having to attend the in-resident academies. Airmen who are currently enrolled in those distance learning courses can still finish the course and get credit, or, if they choose, can withdraw with no adverse actions and re-enroll later before attending resident EPME.

The Air Force Personnel Center or Air University will tell airmen when they can enroll in their distance learning, but airmen must take the initiative to sign up on their own.

The Air Force is also creating a new requirement, called the Professional Development Unit, that "will capture diverse education, training and life experiences," the release said. 

Wright said the PDU "is where we give you credit for many of the things that you're already doing as airmen and NCOs between those in-residence experiences." 

Airmen will have to complete 24 one-hour PDUs each year. Activities such as professional enhancement seminars, senior enlisted joint PME, college classes, and earning professional certifications will count toward the PDU requirements. Actively planning and participating in Air Force, joint and coalition exercises, gaining experience in warfighting activities such as command and control and force protection, and deploying and leading teams of all sizes in combatant command areas of responsibilities will also count.

"There's a variety of things that we do on a regular basis where we develop ourselves when we're not sitting in an Air Force Professional Military Education course, and we'd like to give you credit for those things," Wright said.

The Air Force also removed all negative personnel actions as of July 1, Wright said. 

"This gives you much greater flexibility to complete your distance learning," Wright said.

The removal of those negative personnel actions means that going forward, even airmen who didn't finish their PME distance learning by the end of 2016 won't be ineligible for promotion, as the Air Force warned last year. 

However, there will be no retroactive change for 5,489 staff sergeants who were made ineligible for consideration for promotion to technical sergeant this month because they didn't finish their online PME. In a Wednesday email, Grabham said that those staff sergeants were part of the fiscal 2017 promotion cycle, and the removal of the negative personnel actions related to EPME will take effect beginning in the fiscal 2018 promotion testing cycle.

In the release, Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass, chief of Air Force Enlisted Developmental Education, said the changes came out of the triennial review of EPME conducted at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in early April.

"The committee determined changes were needed to the existing EPME structure in order to align EPME with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's policy requiring rank-based educational opportunities," Bass said. 

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 He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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