An increasingly competitive job market presents ongoing challenges to the Air Force’s ability to recruit and retain the highest caliber of airmen.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s military, corporate, and industry leaders. And with less than 1 percent of U.S. citizens with any experience or direct ties to the military, outreach is more important than ever.

Simply put, the quality of education available on or near military installations continues to be a factor airmen and families consider when deciding whether to continue serving.

Access to schools and interaction with educators and students is necessary to pursue innovative solutions, and will ultimately be a key factor in more people electing to serve the nation.

Knowing this, Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, plans to have a more active presence in schools near AMC bases and elsewhere.

The command looks to get more airmen involved with schools and bring students to military installations. This is part of a commitment to addressing concerns voiced by military families and to be a more active partner in enhancing education.

While the quality of education near Scott Air Force Base is making the grade, many schools surrounding other military installations are not. This reality causes service members and families to flock to better school districts, incur out-of-pocket expenses for private education, settle for existing circumstances, or make difficult career-impacting decisions.

Ellicott Middle School students play a quiz game during the GPS Week school outreach at Ellicott, Colo. (Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes/Air Force)
Ellicott Middle School students play a quiz game during the GPS Week school outreach at Ellicott, Colo. (Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes/Air Force)

In a 2017 Military Times poll, airmen indicated the quality and availability of K-12 education was a key factor in their decision on whether to continue serving.

Military service comes with its fair share of sacrifices. Sacrificing the quality of a child’s education should not be one of them.

Seventy percent of those polled asserted that moving to a new assignment created disruption and educational challenges. Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated quality of education was “a significant factor” in a military family’s decision to remain in service.

Forty percent said they would decline “career advancing” assignments if educational needs failed to meet their standards.

This data demonstrate that family readiness, where education is a key component, can impact military readiness if long-term solutions are not put into place.

Recognizing education is important to recruiting and retaining America’s future force and retaining our airmen and families, Air Mobility Command, led by Gen. Carlton Everhart, is actively seeking and creating partnerships with local and public schools across several states to provide insight into the Air Force while complementing educational experiences.

Tech. Sgt. Dexter High, of the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, high-fives Romanian children during the kids' visit to the 71st Air Base Wing. (Senior Airman Benjamin Wilson/Air Force)
Tech. Sgt. Dexter High, of the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, high-fives Romanian children during the kids' visit to the 71st Air Base Wing. (Senior Airman Benjamin Wilson/Air Force)

A particular area of mutual benefit to students, school districts and the Air Force alike is known as STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Gen. Everhart launched an interactive Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM-based flying classroom in December.

The general has partnered with civic leaders with ties to education to inform future initiatives, and is actively bolstering AMC participation and leadership involvement in STEAM events — recognizing the gap that exists with regard to the arts in many districts.

In 2018, numerous STEAM events and future flying classroom opportunities are planned at installations across Air Mobility Command.

For instance, in support of the national Music in Our Schools campaign, AMC’s two bands will perform and interact with students and educators in 47 schools across six different states in March.

This outreach will educate an estimated 12,000 students and potential recruits about the Air Force and Air Mobility Command while offering valuable educational experiences related to the creative arts.

At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the base will host 1,500 students from five area schools and universities. The students will receive a day’s worth of STEAM curriculum, interact with airmen, and experience Air Force missions, creating positive learning experiences tied to lasting memories.

The intent of these engagements is to demonstrate a commitment to complementing local education while recognizing the role of military family readiness in mission success.

At the same time, interaction with airmen in schools will help students and educators gain insight into Air Force opportunities, which will help recruit new airmen.

Stronger connections with educators and enhanced access to schools is necessary if positive change is to occur.

Each military installation has a pool of potential educators available to share experiences and serve as guest lecturers, providing potential mentors for students.

School improvements and focused partnering with educators and Congress will result in consistent dialogue and progress. It will also ensure more airmen and their families remain in service, quality students are recruited, and the U.S. remains the most lethal and advanced fighting force in the world.

Col. Chris Karns is director of public affairs at Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.