Travis Air Force Base, Calif. – As commanders, we often talk about “developing airmen”. This is usually related to their on-going military career-field training or a formal course of study to get a college degree. However, I suggest that sometimes, developing airmen means guiding them through the maze of options that eventually leads to a long-term career and give them enough experience to make important life choices. For example, an optometry technician in my unit wanted to be a Medical Services Corps (MSC) officer – the part of the Air Force Medical Service most closely aligned with contracting, logistics, and computer systems, but having nothing to do with optometry. Developing this airman should not be limited to simply ensuring that he is the best possible optometry technician. In the long-term, it is in the interest of the Air Force to have the airman work closely with MSC officers in their workplaces and even let him work on projects that can build a resume to aid in his selection as an officer candidate.
Our enlisted airmen and young officers have amazing potential, and we should find ways to encourage them. The example above is the true story of an airman recently selected by the Air Force for officer training and then commissioning as an MSC. In his case, he had already identified the medical career field he was interested in pursuing and requested to work with current MSC officers, even if it was after normal duty hours. It is common for airmen to have already identified a career field of interest, and frequently they have already taken college classes to help them prepare for such a career. It is often not difficult to identify an airman with interest, we just need to ask them about their interests, career goals and courses of study. Do your airmen feel comfortable discussing career goals with you that may be outside their current military career-field?
Many people facing a major life event such as choosing a career path need encouragement to push through to their goal, to overcome a significant hurdle such as taking the entrance exam to a professional school. For example, they may be interested in pursuing a legal career, and have completed the required courses to apply to law school. However, they may be reluctant to take the law school admission test due to lack of self-confidence. This is where a supervisor who really knows their airman can help tremendously. You might say, “I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know the first thing about getting into law school.” However, if you’ve seen their level of preparation and confidence in performing their daily tasks, you can encourage them by reminding them of all the preparation they have done to get ready for the exam and expressing confidence in their success. This may be enough to get them over their nervousness about the exam, but sometimes you might have to drive them to the test center and watch them walk in the door. Afterward, they will likely succeed and later be very thankful for your encouragement. Are you willing to go this far in helping your airmen succeed even if it is not in your military career-field?
I have seen some excellent airmen successfully launch new careers, and have celebrated their success with them. I have also seen airmen miss out on opportunities because they hesitated to push through to the goal. Those airmen usually had good supervisors who were willing to help their airmen with anything they needed to succeed, but who missed out on the opportunity to help because they never asked the airmen to explain where they saw themselves in five or ten or twenty years. My challenge to all of us as supervisors and leaders is to push beyond the simple question of “Airman, do you need anything?” and get to the place where the airman is explaining their goals, interests, and plans so that you can see where they need help. Seeing the need, allows us to intervene successfully and make a difference in someone’s life.