Retain the Family in Today’s All-Volunteer Air Force


The U.S. Air Force is not meeting the needs of field-grade officers and their spouses, directly affecting talent management. American society now promotes dual-career households, demands post-graduate education for promotions, and puts extreme value on the education of our children. Yet the Air Force, the youngest of America’s military services, maintains the status quo vis-à-vis the expectation that military families will sacrifice their needs. Military spouses want to forecast their careers, capitalize on the benefits of their education, and ensure stability for the ever-increasing importance of their children’s social and academic lives.

Today, educated and driven spouses are changing the paradigm of today’s officer retention. Field-grade officers, facing the gauntlet of intermediate developmental education, squadron command, senior developmental education, group command, and wing command, are walking away. Rather than capitalizing on their own talent and ensuring the Air Force can fill key and essential assignments, many of these officers are turning down professional military education and/or command opportunities. Unless drastic steps are taken to support spousal employment, the U.S. Air Force will continue the downward trend of losing its top talent, and America’s competitive advantage will cease to exist.

Officers’ Families and Spouses Today

Families are a significant part of senior officers’ lives. Across all services, military officers are more likely to be married than are civilians of comparable age. In 2016, unlike junior officers, who are typically single with no children, mid-level and senior officers (O-4 to O-10) are generally married to civilians with children. The Air Force has the highest marriage rates of all the service branches.

In addition to higher marriage rates, senior officer spouses are more educated and yet less likely to be employed compared to their civilian counterparts. Unemployment among all active-duty spouses is 23 percent — nearly six times the national unemployment average. To put that in perspective, military spouse unemployment is 10 percent higher than teenagers — and these are people actively looking for a job. Of those spouses that do happen to find employment, a startling 90 percent of them are underemployed. They are also misemployed. A 2015 survey of active-duty spouses by the Defense Manpower Data Center found 41 percent of employed Air Force spouses were not employed in the field in which they received their education.

A known contributor of spousal underemployment is the recurring short-notice and short-term permanent changes of station (PCS) that field-grade officers and their families experience. The period between taking squadron command and post-wing command, roughly between 15 to 22 years of service, is the most turbulent for moves. Within a relatively short timeframe, the most talented officers go to school, take command, go to school again, and then command twice more. These assignments are incredibly demanding, generally inflexible, and last only one or two years, with location moves in between them all. When their significant other in uniform inevitably gets orders to a new location, spouses lose six–nine months of salary every time they relocate to follow their loved one. Despite Department of Defense-wide initiatives to support spousal employment, PCS moves reduce earnings of those spouses who work by approximately $3,100 per move, a 14-percent reduction on average, and such earnings reductions compound with each move.

Additionally, the quick succession of multiple moves, which do not provide enough time to complete a degree, hamper the ability for spouses to capitalize on education benefits for portable employment. A 2018 RAND study of the spousal education benefit program (MyCAA) found that PCS and deployment disruptions made utilizing the program more difficult, particularly for those spouses who have the “greatest need or interest in a high-demand, portable career.”

Moreover, for overseas assignments, depending on the status of forces agreement with the country in question, spouses may be unable to work in the country of assignment. For example, at the Worldwide Inspector General conference in May 2019, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein noted that the number one location for requests for “early return home” was Aviano, Italy.

Exacerbating the multiple PCS moves on spousal employment are demands placed on airmen’s spouses when the airman is a squadron, group, or wing commander. Higher-level commanders expect spouses to be a participating critical element of the command team, serving as vital resources to promote family readiness within the unit.

Also notable is the effect of multiple moves on children’s education. It is not a stretch of the imagination to assume that educated, highly functioning, ambitious adults tend to marry other educated, highly functioning, ambitious adults. That educated, high-functioning couple presumably wants an environment to nurture children that will continue their educational trend toward success. Military children attend between six and nine different schools during the course of an active-duty career. Beyond the issues inherent to constant up-rooting and replanting during the formative years of a child, with each move there are issues with credit transfer and varying graduation requirements. After decades of inaction, Department of Defense-championed Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children was created in 2009 to address this, but it took six years for all 50 states to sign on. Despite the success story, 67 percent of families surveyed said that their child’s school district was wholly unaware of the requirement to comply with this pact. Such a lack of awareness is not surprising; it wasn’t until 2017 that military children were even identifiable in the public education system.

Band-Aid Solutions

The Air Force recognizes some of these issues. For example, findings from Gen. Goldfien’s Squadron Revitalization Project cited the difficulty for otherwise working spouses to obtain jobs when they PCS, both for jobs on base and in the local community, as a crucial negative effect on squadron readiness.

Recognizing the pressures military spouse underemployment places on airmen, the Air Force implemented a series of short-term band aids to mitigate the problem. No longer do airmen have to face the stark choice between professional military education and separating from the force. The Career Intermission Program allows airmen the opportunity for a one-time temporary transition from active duty to the Individual Ready Reserve (though this program is only available to a very small percentage of airmen each year), and the revised command screening process provides more advance notice before a PCS for group or wing command.

Although these programs provide airmen more flexibility to make difficult career decisions, the band-aid solutions are already showing wear. In addition to continuing to turn down professional military education and command opportunities, those airmen who make the difficult choice to take these opportunities are increasingly going alone, leaving their families behind so their spouses can pursue their own employment avenues. For example, as of the writing of this piece, 35 percent of the incoming Air War College class indicate their intention to attend unaccompanied. And the number of unaccompanied commanders at all levels is growing, which should be a significant concern for Air Force senior leadership. In addition, many colonels are choosing to retire rather than accept extended deployments. Thus, it is no surprise that in the 2015 and 2017 Air Force retention surveys, officers cited “maintaining a work/life balance” as one of the top “influences to leave.” The lack of talent investment and resulting exodus of field-grade officers creates a manning bathtub, diluting the talent in the future competition pool for brigadier general.

In addition, the Air Force’s new retirement system will only exacerbate these difficulties in talent management. The incentive to continue until the minimum of 20 years, however, is going to go away as the Air Forces shifts to the Blended Retirement System. Unlike the legacy pension-like plan where airmen receive retirement pay only if they serve a full 20 years, the new system has more opportunities for earlier separation with some retirement pay. In combining elements of the legacy retirement system with benefits similar to those offered in many civilian 401(k) plans, field-grade officers can separate before 20 years and still receive significant monetary benefits. Henceforth, airmen will be able to make each additional career decision without the penalty of walking away empty-handed. Thus, while the Blended Retirement System was a budget-driven choice, it is going to produce a host of long-term systemic issues in quality talent; e.g., “the best of the rest” vs “the best of the best.” As the implementation of Blended Retirement System expands, the Air Force needs a new approach to spousal employment in order to retain its top talent.



Talent Management for the All-Volunteer Family Force

Military policies are arduous to change and difficult for staffs to actualize. With respect for that reality, the Air Force nevertheless needs to implement policies that encourage spousal employment. Specifically, the Air Force needs to provide infrastructure support for telecommuting spouses, respect spousal time during command assignments, and promote stability. We provide four suggestions for meeting these goals.

First, the Air Force can capitalize on an already ongoing trend. Military spouses have adapted to their inconsistent circumstances and embraced teleworking, an option which allows their careers to advance despite perpetually moving locales. These spouses lack support, however, both in knowledge of existing base infrastructure — such as available teleconferencing spaces in the base library — and in the distinct networking and social support necessary for spouses to be successful in the geographically and socially isolated environment that ongoing military moves engender. The Air Force can encourage teleworking options by promoting co-working spaces, such as WeWork, on bases worldwide. Co-working locations often have childcare onsite (e.g., MOMentum) and provide fully outfitted technical support systems in communal spaces. Such spaces allow spouses to have a dedicated “working” environment with other working adults and childcare, ameliorating the issues of isolation that military spouses face, as well as limiting distractions of working within the home with children present.

Second, the Air Force should recognize the priority military spouses put on their children and ensure spouses are not displacing their own employment needs for childcare and educational opportunities. To do this, the Air Force should provide access to more childcare options and expanded childcare hours. Despite demand for space at Childhood Development Centers, particularly for remote bases in which base childcare is the only option, Childhood Development Centers routinely have year-long waitlists. While the Air Force supplements the Childhood Development Center with the Family Child Care program, the Family Child Care’s in-home child care is a stop-gap measure at best, and does not provide the same level of structure or educational/social benefit as a Childhood Development Center. Moreover, Childhood Development Center hours do not always coincide with dual-working couples’ schedules or the needs of the working spouse, particularly when the airman is deployed or on an extended temporary-duty assignment. Additionally, the Air Force can continue to engage and pursue quality education for children. When faced with subpar educational opportunities for their children, military spouses are often forced to choose between personal employment and far-off or home schooling that meets their children’s particular needs. All of the services agree that quality childcare is both critical to personnel retention and a critical readiness issue. It is heartening to note that the U.S. military is in good company in this conundrum; the British military has addressed this educational issue by employing the Continuing Education Allowance. An interim solution for the U.S. military would be to provide stipends to those families whose local schools do not currently provide adequate services for military children.

Third, the Air Force needs to place a greater respect on military spouses’ time, particularly during command assignments. The Air Force should revisit and refresh the Key Spouse Program. While many spouses and families want to participate in Squadron activities and events, as the Squadron Revitalization Project found, spouses “don’t want to be ‘voluntold’ to do it” and “Squadrons should be considerate when scheduling, as many spouses have their own careers or other daytime obligations and want their schedules to be accommodated.” The Key Spouse Program is currently an inspectable item whose efficacy and efficiency are significantly dependent on squadron spouse volunteers. This is an antiquated notion that imbues most on-boarding spouses with a sense of being overwhelmed, as opposed to the intended sense of belonging, particularly when they are simultaneously employed. One means by which the Air Force can aid working spouses is to follow Army and Marine Corps best practices, which moved away from volunteer spousal participation and instead hired civilians to manage the program.

Fourth, and arguably most impactful, the Air Force needs to carefully consider all possible ways to keep airmen on station for longer periods of time. Lengthening time on station solves several issues, including providing familial stability, which allows spouses to gain a foothold in a local industry, chapter, or organization, and to secure solid resume experiences. The consequences of lengthening tours are complex, and the topic requires more discussion than possible in this particular article. However, the cost-benefit analysis of allowing promotion-competitive field-grade officers alternative developmental paths that include a “homestead” tour of five years, as opposed to every one to two years due to school and command, deserves further research and exploration. One obvious option to increase time on station is joint basing, which unfortunately has seen mixed results to date. Indeed, lengthening time on station is not inconsistent with the services’ own recommendations to Congress to reduce their basing footprints to improve operational readiness. The Air Force can mitigate manning, maintenance, and logistical challenges by concentrating operational units at fewer bases while simultaneously providing airmen both career development and longer-term stability to support spousal education, employment, and career advancement.

Recruit the Member, Retain the Family

The Air Force’s competitive advantage vis-à-vis the forces of other countries, particularly in the face of aging weapons platforms, is in its talented people. Talent management, therefore, is a readiness issue, and it is vital to optimize talent along with retention. To ensure its senior airmen are the most educated, and that they successfully complete leadership and command experiences, the Air Force should consider the educational and employment needs of active-duty spouses who are as equally committed to academic and career success as their airmen partners. The status quo of spousal underemployment and academic sacrifice to maximize the military member’s career development is no longer conducive to optimal talent management in the Air Force, and the best talent will not stay at the expense of their families. As the Air Force saying goes, “Recruit the member, retain the family.”



Rosella Cappella Zielinski is a professor at Boston University and an Air Force field grade officer’s spouse.

Melinda Beyer is a prior Marine Corps officer and currently an Air Force Key Spouse Mentor.  


Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tony R. Ritter