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First sergeant changes benefit entire AF

BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, D.C. -- Master Sgt. Nancy Martin mentors Staff Sgt. Josie Reyes-Smith, a flight operations noncommissioned officer, on enlisted force structure subjects to ensure Reyes-Smith can readily address her airmen's questions at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C. Martin is the first sergeant for the 11th Wing's security forces squadron. Faced with a continuing shortage of first sergeants, Air Force officials recently converted the career field into a three- or six-year, special-duty assignment.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, D.C. -- Master Sgt. Nancy Martin mentors Staff Sgt. Josie Reyes-Smith, a flight operations noncommissioned officer, on enlisted force structure subjects to ensure Reyes-Smith can readily address her airmen's questions at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C. Martin is the first sergeant for the 11th Wing's security forces squadron. Faced with a continuing shortage of first sergeants, Air Force officials recently converted the career field into a three- or six-year, special-duty assignment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

WASHINGTON -- Air Force officials are touting recent changes made to first sergeant assignments and hope that more senior noncommissioned officers take advantage of what some are calling "the best job I've ever had in the Air Force."

The Air Force converted the career field into a special-duty assignment in October, according to Senior Master Sgt. Chris Anthony, first sergeant special-duty manager at the Pentagon. However, since then, the Air Force is still short 100 first sergeants.

Anthony said the recent changes, which have been well received throughout the force, are helping the Air Force fill these critical jobs.

"A review of the career field was conducted, and it was determined that something needed to be done to make the position more attractive to senior noncommissioned officers," said Anthony. "So far, we've heard nothing but good things about the changes we made."

Most notably, the Air Force made the first sergeant position a three-year special-duty assignment, Anthony said. After two years, the first sergeant can apply to extend for another three-year assignment.

Once first sergeants complete their special-duty assignment, they are free to return to their previous career field.

The program, as it was structured, was not meeting Air Force needs, explained Chief Master Sgt. Michael Gilbert, chief of enlisted force development in the Air Force's senior leader management office at the Pentagon.

"We were over 120 first sergeants short which equates to one out of every 10 squadrons without a diamond-wearing first sergeant," Gilbert said. "This meant that about 20,000 airmen and family members (were) not being properly served."

To compound matters, many of the best senior NCOs steered clear of the duty out of a concern for their careers, he said.

"Prior to the change, many senior NCOs felt that if they chose to become a first sergeant they would basically stop their promotion track because they were competing against a small group of highly qualified people," said Chief Master Sgt. Sandra Williams, commandant of the Air Force First Sergeant Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

In the past, very few first sergeants were able to return to their career fields, but those that were allowed to return historically have done very well with promotions, Anthony said.

"Promotion boards have consistently recognized the leadership experience of having led a squadron and taken care of hundreds of people," Gilbert said. "I believe that under the new system, many more top senior NCOs will go into the first sergeant duty, do great things for us and then return to their career fields and do even more great things for our Air Force."

Besides facing tougher promotion rates, many people were also discouraged by just how time consuming the first sergeant job can be, Williams said.

"You have to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. "With the high operations and personnel tempo over the last several years, many people didn't want to impact their family life any more than necessary by taking on additional responsibilities."

However, with the first sergeant position now a three- or six-year, special-duty assignment instead of a career choice, officials hope that more senior NCOs will be interested in doing what Williams, a nine-year first sergeant, called "the best job I've ever had in the Air Force."

"It was a big challenge, but I enjoyed it tremendously," she said. "I have no doubt that the experience I gained as a first sergeant (has) made me the chief that I am today. But the best part of all was the opportunity to help people and to know that I made a positive impact in someone's life."

From counseling grieving families to being the commander's sounding board on enlisted issues, the experience gained by first sergeants is very valuable to the Air Force, Anthony said.

"Senior NCOs should expect progressively more demanding roles as they handle each successive leadership step," Gilbert said. "We don't want a system that routes many of our best enlisted leaders into a dead end. In many cases, the first sergeant position, as a career field, was doing just that."

When someone became a first sergeant, the career field had to give up one of its sharpest troops, Anthony said. Although the Air Force, as a whole, gained a valuable asset, the career field was short one future leader.

Now senior NCOs can expect to work hard and make a big difference as a first sergeant and then move on after a few years to other important challenges, Gilbert said.

The changes to the first sergeant career field will also have a big impact on the airmen in the field.

"In addition to benefiting from having a unit first sergeant, airmen will also enjoy the leadership of some of the Air Force's very best NCOs who are accomplished leaders with diverse backgrounds and experiences," he said.

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