Degrees and PME - More important than ever

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- As a squadron operations officer of one of the most highly-deployed flying units in the Air Force, my primary job is making the unit successful at our wartime mission. For the most part, this includes providing the best trained crews to fly sorties at deployed locations in support of the joint fight.

In discussions about their futures in our Air Force, the subject of promotions and the need for advanced academic degrees inevitably emerges.

"I don't have time to get a degree." "Why do I have to get a master's?" "But I just finished my CDCs." These are the types of questions and statements regularly heard regarding the subject.

Mentally, I've tried to rationalize the need for a master's, Community College of the Air Force degree or other degree in that it somehow made them better at multi-tasking or that it would give them some analytical skill that would make them better at their current job.

Neither of these is probably true for most company-grade officers and junior NCOs in their current jobs, and in fact it may take some time away from other squadron efforts. From a purely current operational perspective there are a lot of costs in time and effort to ensure Sergeant Jones or Captain Smith have their degree programs completed. However, this perspective ignores another element of leadership - taking care of and developing Airmen.

A quick look at the promotion statistics from the last several major, lieutenant colonel and colonel boards highlights the dramatic difference in promotion rates between those who have advanced academic degrees and those who do not.

Not having your master's completed can cut your chances of promotion in half - that's right - in half! Ignore your professional military education requirements and you've just cut your chances even further - to near zero at the senior grades. For officers, getting promoted below the zone without a master's is almost unheard of.

Still, if having a master's generally doesn't help our CGOs perform better at their primary job, why do the boards seem to place such emphasis on it? The answer lies partly in why the Air Force promotes officers in the first place.

The Air Force promotes officers based on their potential to serve in the next higher grade, which, for the discussion of advanced academic degrees, is to the field grades. Critical thinking and the taking of information from disparate sources to synthesize data in support of a thesis - the heart of master's-level work - are the types of mental processes our Air Force needs at the field grade level and beyond. A master's program also expands an individual's knowledge base, giving him or her a deeper well to draw from when new and challenging problems arise.

Similarly, PME completion ensures individuals have been exposed to a range of professional military and leadership subjects beyond their specific career field. If we don't build these capabilities and knowledge bases early, or at least identify those who show promise in these areas, we may lose out on identifying the Air Force's best candidates for future leadership.

In practical terms, we need to make sure our "#1 captain" or "#1 major" is fully competitive at both the promotion board and the concurrent developmental education board. Don't let your squadron's tactical genius neglect other areas of his or her development and miss out on the opportunity to continue to serve in an ever-expanding capacity.

A similar environment exists for our enlisted corps. In the past, it was not uncommon for enlisted troops to serve entire careers without earning a college degree. Today, a degree is required in order to be competitive at not just the senior NCO level, but also as an NCO and Airman.

And it is not just any degree that will fill the bill, but a CCAF degree, specifically. The Air Force crafted the CCAF degree to address the knowledge and leadership traits needed in the modern enlisted force. Realizing the value of advanced education both in and out of the Air Force, an increasing percentage of the enlisted force is completing bachelor's degree programs, with many continuing into graduate-level work.

Just as with the officer corps, mission requirements will have to take precedence, but it should not be to the total exclusion of developing the whole person. Of course, all of this comes on top of career development course completion, PME schools and other developmental requirements. It's a lot to handle, but our nation, and by extension our Air Force, needs a highly trained and educated force now more than ever.

All of us - including senior Air Force leadership - know that if you couldn't make time for earning a degree as a CGO or junior NCO, there is little chance you'll have sufficient time as an FGO or senior NCO.

How many master sergeants, majors or lieutenant colonels out there can make time to hack out a degree program under their current work load? It's tough as a captain or staff sergeant, but it becomes exponentially more difficult with increased rank and responsibility.

That's why it's so important to get it done sooner rather than later. And much like other types of investments, the earlier you start, the greater your return, and in the case of education, it is an investment in personal potential.

Ultimately, whether we agree with the specific level of emphasis the Air Force places on advanced education or not, we are not taking care of our Airmen if we do not make certain they are aware of the influence it has on their ability to make a larger impact on the Air Force and their future career potential.

Our Air Force leadership's message on this issue has been loud and clear - are we listening?