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New in 2021: Sky-high retention under COVID leads to Air Force career changes and slashed bonuses

Hundreds of active-duty airmen — particularly those in overmanned jobs — will be encouraged to make significant career changes in 2021 as the Air Force tries to correct a coronavirus-driven overmanning problem.

Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly said Dec. 1 that as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in early 2020 and dealt a swift blow to the national economy and private sector job market, hundreds of airmen who had been planning to retire or separate changed their minds. Retention rates in fiscal 2020 hit their highest point since the post-9/11 era, and left the Air Force with about 900 more airmen than it hoped to end fiscal 2021 with.

To correct this, Kelly said, the Air Force was preparing a slate of voluntary programs it hopes will rebalance the force. Those measures would likely include plans to grant airmen active-duty service commitment waivers to move to the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve earlier than they normally would have, and to allow airmen in overmanned career fields to transfer to undermanned jobs, such as pararescuemen and maintainers.

The Air Force followed on Dec. 10 by unveiling the list of jobs eligible for selective reenlistment bonuses in fiscal 2021 — and it was cut nearly in half from the list released about a year earlier. Because of the sky-high retention in 2020, Kelly said, it wasn’t necessary to offer as many airmen retention bonuses.

“Overall retention levels are at record highs and manning within many of our career fields is healthy,” Kelly said in a Dec. 10 release. “This reduces our requirement and opportunity to utilize retention bonuses to the same extent.”

The Air Force thinks the voluntary measures will be enough to rebalance its force, and is not considering involuntary programs in 2021.

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