Want to be on the fast track to airman 1st class? Bring some friends to boot camp.
The Air Force is promising medals and quicker promotions to airmen and guardians who convince others to join the military as well. The service announced its latest bid to reverse lackluster recruiting numbers May 18, as it enters the crucial summer push to hit its enlistment goals by the end of the fiscal year.
Almost any enlisted airman — excluding chief master sergeants — and officers up to the rank of lieutenant colonel can earn as many as two Air and Space Achievement Medals for referring three people, as long as they ultimately enlist and ship out to basic training.
The medal is a common award that recognizes those who go above and beyond in their service to the Air Force, though not necessarily in combat.
Those who refer at least five applicants who successfully enlist can receive the slightly more prestigious Air and Space Commendation Medal, the Air Force said. That applies to any enlisted airman or officer up to the rank of colonel.
Awards can be a boon to service members’ annual performance reviews and improve their odds of acceptance into competitive jobs and leadership roles.
Another initiative rewards new airmen and guardians for their help by promoting them sooner. Recruits can shave more than a year off of the time it takes to jump the two ranks from newly minted airman basic to airman 1st class, the service’s third-lowest rank.
Airmen graduate from boot camp at the rank of airman basic, or E-1. They must serve at the lowest level for six months before they are automatically promoted to airman, or E-2, barring any behavioral issues. After 10 months at that grade, airmen become eligible to move up to airman 1st class (E-3).
The “Stripes for Referrals” initiative would allow a fresh E-1 to skip to E-2 sooner by referring two enlisted candidates, or to E-3 with four referrals to the Delayed Entry Program — which gives recruits more time between when they sign enlistment paperwork and leave for boot camp.
Service members must refer prospective airmen through the service’s “Aim High” recruiting app to get credit for enlistments. The programs apply to recruits of the active duty Air Force and Space Force, the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard.
And, the Air Force noted, airmen have to find new people on their own — not piggyback on a recruiter’s efforts.
“Stripes for Referrals” began April 28, and the awards program began May 4. Both pilot programs will run for one year and expire unless they are codified in Air Force rules, according to two memos signed by Alex Wagner, the service’s civilian personnel chief.
Wagner also expanded the Air Force’s rules to offer fast-tracked promotions to E-2 for high school graduates with an International Baccalaureate diploma, to E-3 for those who come in with at least 45 semester hours of college credit or Advanced Placement exam credit, and to senior airman (E-4) for recruits with certain cybersecurity certifications.
The initiatives are among several other incentives and policy tweaks aimed at improving how the Air Force markets itself to the American public and shrinking the hurdles people may face once they apply. That has included loosening body fat requirements and standing up a new team dedicated to fielding online interest, among others.
The Pentagon is broadly struggling with recruitment because of a complex web of economic and health factors, dwindling interest in military service, and the introduction of an electronic health records system that has significantly slowed the process of bringing in new people.
Officials have projected that the slowdown will create a shortfall of thousands of airmen in critical specialties, from maintenance to recruitment itself.
As of the end of March, the midpoint of fiscal 2023, the Air Force was less than halfway to its goal — bringing in around 11,200 of the 26,877 active duty enlistees it wants. The Air Force Recruiting Service did not immediately answer where that number stands as of Monday.
Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, told lawmakers March 29 that the Air Force expects to miss its 2023 goal by around 4,100 people on the active duty side, and by about 4,600 and 3,600 airmen in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, respectively.
The fledgling Space Force, whose recruiting efforts are overseen by the Air Force, has had an easier time bringing in new members because of its niche missions set and because it is much smaller than the other armed forces at 8,600 uniformed jobs overall.
Interim Air Force Undersecretary Kristyn Jones told lawmakers March 22 that the Space Force was on track to meet its recruitment goal of 532 enlisted guardians by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.