Air Force Academy cadets will soon get a new experience: college professors who wear stripes on their sleeves.
It’s a pilot program that’s starting small but has big potential as the Air Force has more enlisted airmen walking around with advanced degrees than ever before.
The plan to put sergeants in classrooms was masterminded by the academy’s top enlisted airman, Chief Master Sgt. Robert Boyer. He’s a trained flight engineer with 30 years in uniform, who will be getting his bachelor’s degree this week.
He’s joining the growing flock of enlisted airmen who have used the services educational benefits to pick up a sheepskin.
“Over the past 20 years, I have seen it grow by leaps and bounds,” he said.
The Air Force began its push for smarter enlisted troops in the 1970s with the founding of the Community College of the Air Force, designed to give enlistees two-year degrees during their time in the service.
Since then, the Air Force has added tuition assistance for airmen at civilian schools and made educating enlisted troops a top goal.
“With that attention and encouragement we are offering our enlisted corps, they are really taking advantage of it,” Boyer said.
But all those degrees weren’t enough to get sergeants in classrooms. Instead, sergeants at the academy’s academic wing have been relegated to work as technicians — keeping equipment humming and paperwork flowing at the school. The teachers have been officers or highly qualified civilians.
But the Air Force’s sergeants have always been teachers, if tough ones. The first person new airmen get to meet is a loud, and often apparently angry, drill instructor at Lackland Air Force Base.
Cadets get that same kind of tough teaching from academy military trainers, the sergeants assigned to the cadet wing to teach cadets the value of discipline while delivering lessons on military life.
“We have enlisted exposure within the cadet wing, we have not had as much exposure within Fairchild Hall,” Boyer said, referring to the academy’s massive academic building.
The enlisted professors aren’t getting breaks. They will have to carry the same degrees and qualifications as their brass-wearing counterparts. They will also have to have exemplary reviews through their careers to make the cut.
And for now, they will be small in numbers. The program to put sergeants in academic jobs will start with just three to test the new program.
Boyer said the sergeants aren’t coming to put officers out of work. Instead, the small academic cadre will serve as a reminder to cadets of the men and women they will be asked to lead when they serve as officers.
It is one of several steps the Air Force is taking to give its enlisted troops a higher profile. Last year, the service brought in the first sergeants to fly aircraft since World War II with a program that will put them at the controls of drones.
The Air Force has always had the military’s highest ratio of officers to enlisted troops, with one officer for every four airmen in the ranks.
The Army has one officer for every nine enlisted troops, and that includes the service’s 26,000 warrant officers, a rank between sergeant and lieutenant that the Air Force doesn’t use. In the Air Force, officers fly the planes and serve in the top staff jobs. Enlisted troops are widely seen as the personnel on the ground who fuel, fix and arm the planes that fly into battle.
But in the top enlisted ranks, nearly 11 percent of the personnel have advanced degrees: nine out of 10 senior sergeants have an associate or higher degree.
Boyer said since the Air Force paid for all that academic horsepower in the enlisted ranks, it makes sense to use it at the service’s college.
“With all the growing expertise in our enlisted corps, it’s a natural evolution to say ‘Now, what?’” Boyer said. “How do we capitalize on that?”
Putting sergeants in classrooms at the academy will take a special kind of sergeant. The academy is known as one of the nation’s most rigorous academic institutions with programs, including undergraduate engineering, that have repeatedly been deemed superior to its civilian counterparts.
But Boyer said those who make the cut will provide an incentive to their peers to seek academic excellence.
Boyer, who plans on retiring this year, foresees the program expanding. He sees sergeants joining the faculty at the Air Force’s war college and technology institute.
For sergeants, always known as the service’s blue-collar workers, the motivation is clear, Boyer said.
“We want to contribute more,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx