There is a lot of talk about NCOs leaving the service at a higher rate than usual lately. We have those shy of the 10 year mark who are not willing reenlist. This is not a new issue, but leadership is finally asking “why?” It is not too late to ask this question and definitely not too late to fix the problem. I am not bold enough to say I could eradicate this issue, but I will attempt to define it and share some of my successes over the years so you can come to your own conclusion.
First of all, I truly love the current senior leadership of the Air Force. This is the best I have ever seen it in the past 20 years and they are setting a very positive example. This permeates to the lower levels and sparks these questions that leaders are asking. The momentum they are creating will carry on for a long time (This is the opinion of someone retiring in 95 days…I am not looking for brownie points). I have seen many senior leaders on base shift their mindsets because of this. When leaders are not worried about protecting their careers, they can focus on solving problems for their people. We are moving towards this now.
So why is there this exodus of NCOs and why is all of the experience leaving? I have my own opinions based on what I see and the conversations I have had with my team. I have seen a handful of amazing NCOs leave my own team over the past 3 years to pursue other careers. From what I have seen, those who make the decision to leave early are typically those who we really would benefit from having in the service. For example, 3 out of the 6 are in school to be engineers, 1 has his own business, 1 is now a published author and the other is making about $100K a month. Can you imagine the impact these NCOs could have for the Air Force? The reason they got out was because there were no ways they could find to flex their potential.
One of these six told me that our unit is managed well, but it has no vision. This was also systemic for the Air Force as a whole. What he meant was that he could not discover where he fit into the vision. That is our job as SNCOs to ensure our team knows they are valued and encourage them to use their skills. I know I experienced those moments as an Airman and young NCO where I had a great idea, but was told “your job is to work, not think.” This doesn’t work on someone these days who has grown a social media platform or has some other side hustle where they can make a difference and go all in on something they can find meaning in.
Again, I said I was not going to offer any solutions for you. This is something you need to reflect on with your own team. However, here are a few questions you can ask your team:
What are the opportunities we should be taking advantage of?
What problems can you solve?
What could we be doing differently?
When applied to a specific area, these questions start a great conversation. For example, what are some opportunities we are overlooking in our safety program?
Our teams are filled with potential and leaders who have endless capacity, we just need to steer them and teach them how they fit. Then. Let them do great things.