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Air Force officials modernize mentoring program

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- As Air Force officials continue to modernize the processes to meet 21st century mission requirements, manpower and personnel force development officials have taken a hard look at the service's mentoring program to increase its effectiveness. 

"Our mentoring program has existed on paper for many years, but without the right tools to exercise the program, it has remained dormant," said Col. Harrison Smith, deputy director of force development. "With the advent of deliberate force development, the need for focused mentoring has reemerged." 

The revised Air Force Instruction 36-3401, Air Force Mentoring, will include the Air Force mentoring program's goals and benefits, expectations of the mentor and mentee and an electronic development tool that enlisted, officer and civilian members can use. 

"My Enlisted Development Plan" provides a modern, web-based approach for enlisted Airmen to manage their career development. Available via the Air Force Portal, MyEDP is a "one-stop-shopping" electronic toolkit that enables Airmen to designate their mentor or mentee, collaborate with peers, and track their professional career progression. Air Force officials plan to roll out the officer and civilian versions of this program by fall 2009.
 
"We believe this is the right time to emphasize MyEDP, a product that more than 145,000 Airmen have already put to use," Colonel Smith said. "Here we are adapting to an emerging new generation of 'millennial' Airmen and leveraging new technology to meet our Air Force needs." 

Chief Master Sgt. Angela Marsh, Air Force enlisted force development chief, said MyEDP allows members to grant mentoring privileges to mentors they designate. 

"A mentor can access the mentee's MyEDP career information, providing a great starting point for a mentor to share knowledge, experience, and guidance, based on current, relevant career input from the Airman," the chief said. 

MyEDP features discussion forums that are especially popular with junior enlisted Airmen and NCOs, and an avenue for peer-to-peer mentoring to occur. Forum topics range from uniform wear to assignment information to advice on mitigating conflict with supervisors. 

"The forums allow enlisted Airmen to communicate with both their peers and more experienced enlisted personnel, all over the Air Force," Chief Marsh said. "I often see command chiefs, first sergeants and other senior non-commissioned officers participating in the forums, answering questions and offering advice based on their experiences." 

A 2008 Air Force Audit Agency survey found 44 percent of Airmen were not aware the Air Force had a mentoring program, and 54 percent said they had been neither a mentor nor a mentee. However, one senior enlisted Airman said the statistics do not accurately reflect the significant informal examples of daily mentorship. 

"In my Air Force experience, you're being mentored every day," said Chief Master Sgt. Patti Hickman, a reservist and former command chief of the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. "Whether asking about family, asking about promotion and educational goals or offering advice for a range of life issues, that's mentoring, and most of us do it daily on some level." 

According to the January 2008 White Paper "On Learning: The Future of Air Education and Training," continuous learning focuses on the development of Airmen from before accession through retirement or separation and beyond. The concept fits into the "continuum of learning" and views professional growth as a continuous, life-long process of training, education, and experiential learning with a specific outcome: the development of Airmen who can individually recognize the right skills, knowledge and aptitude they need to accomplish assigned tasks and missions. 

Chief Hickman said the concept resonates with her. Despite plans to retire in the near future, she said she still relies on the mentors who have inspired her since the beginning of her career nearly 30 years ago. 

"I have mentored many Airmen and yet I just talked to one of my own mentors today," she said. "You can mentor and be mentored at any point in your career; I just don't have a piece of paper that says 'I am your mentor.'" 

Air Force officials recognize today's Airman is less inclined to paperwork and much more tech savvy than in years' past. Many are more comfortable using technology to communicate and share information versus having face-to-face conversations. 

"While we don't want to replace face-to-face interaction, we do see online tools such as MyEDP as a way to facilitate and enhance the mentoring process," Chief Marsh said. "It comes as no surprise that MyEDP's most popular features include online mentoring capabilities and discussion forums." 

Current policy states that "commanders are responsible for promoting a robust mentoring program within their unit" and an Airman's immediate supervisor or rater is "designated as the primary mentor for each of his or her subordinates." 

Some Airmen have said, however, that using their supervisors in an official capacity feels too much like a performance feedback session and certain situations might call for a different perspective from which to seek advice. 

"I don't know everything, but neither does any one person," said reservist Senior Airman Amber Peterson, a 459th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron medical technician, who counts Chief Hickman among her informal mentors. "So I seek someone who I think would give wise advice and I make that determination by watching their actions, how they conduct themselves.  I may not go to my direct supervisor for guidance every time." 

Colonel Smith said the Air Force recognizes some Airmen may rely on a number of sources for mentoring in their personal and professional lives. 

"The underlying tools such as MyEDP (enlisted), MyODP (officer), and MyCDP (civilian) will empower them to seek mentorship at various levels, leadership or peer-to-peer," Colonel Smith said. "However, it's just as important to ensure local leadership and their subordinates are prepared for face-to-face mentoring." 

To facilitate this process, manpower and personnel officials released Air Force-wide transitional guidance outlining mentor and mentee expectations and goals. 

Staff Sgt. Kimberly Weaver, an independent duty medical technician with the 28th Medical Operations Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, S.D., said she believes mentoring is not rank-specific. Once an inexperienced mentee, the NCO with six years in the Air Force now finds herself just as often dispensing advice to budding NCOs. 

"Anyone can be a mentor," Sergeant Weaver said. "My mentees can come to me about anything, just like I can go to my mentors about anything. The 28th Medical Group is big on the Airman concept and our leaders have strongly encouraged all of us to sign up with MyEDP." 

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney McKinley said he wants to ensure people understand what mentoring is and how it can be most effectively used. 

"Mentoring is about setting the right example all the time and making the Air Force Core Values part of your daily life," Chief McKinley said. "The mentoring relationship is not always a formal one.  Many times Airmen look toward someone who is doing the right things and say, 'That is who I want to be like.'" 

The chief continued that all Air Force members need to be aware that at any time or place other Airmen may be watching, listening and learning behavior they see. 

"When we do get a chance to sit down one-on-one with an Airman, we as leaders and future leaders should take full advantage of that and share whatever we have learned throughout our career."

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