An Unfinished Journey

The strength and capability of our enlisted corps is the envy of nations around the globe. There are countless requests through the Department of State each year asking the Air Force to send representatives to foreign nations to share our enlisted developmental master plan. How do we produce such capable Airmen? We put our enlisted Airmen in challenging jobs and hand them responsibilities that most militaries reserve only for their officers. We can do this because we recruit talented young men and women and deliberately develop them through training, education, and experience. While technical training is a key ingredient to our success, our investment in education and professional development separates the US Air Force enlisted corps—specifically, our enlisted professional military education (EPME).

Education has not always been a strength of our enlisted Airmen. Early in our Air Force’s history, we were laser focused on training and experience. It is impossible to objectively answer why this was the case, but there are several intuitive reasons. First, compared to contemporary standards, we recruited from a pool of less-educated young men and women. Second, our technology and weapon systems were far less complex. Consider the career of our first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). When a young Paul Airey entered the Army Air Corps in 1940, our primary bomber was powered by propellers. Compare that with our Air Force in 1970, the sunset of Chief Airey’s career. Jet engines, long-range missiles, mission capabilities in space, and computer technology defined an entirely different and much more techsavvy Air Force. Third, the geopolitical environment itself was simpler. The Cold War was the manifestation of a bipolar world; it was no less frightening, but much simpler than the numerous rogue nation states and potential threats that loom over us today. That meant Airmen enjoyed a level of predictability in everyday operations that lent itself to the strengths of training versus the more nuanced capabilities that come with education.

Furthermore, the size of the force meant most enlisted Airmen could focus on their core job. Only the most seasoned and experienced noncommissioned officers (NCO) were assigned leadership responsibilities, and very few had any education beyond high school. Years later, as the Cold War came to a close, the force began to dramatically reduce our enlisted manpower. Leadership responsibility, by necessity, was pushed further down to more junior Airmen. Suddenly mid-level NCOs were expected to lead.

Over time, our world has grown more complex, and our Air Force has responded accordingly—particularly in the increasing demands we have placed on our enlisted Airmen. While training was absolutely critical to the demanding and often highly technical duties our Airmen executed on a daily basis—and remains essential to our success today— education became more necessary in order to prepare Airmen to operate in an ever-changing and unpredictable environment. Over time, our Air Force began to deliberately encourage and reward off-duty education. When Chief Rodney J. McKinley became the CMSAF in 2006, for example, he highly encouraged Airmen to earn their Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) degree earlier in their careers. The number of enlisted Airmen with an associate’s degree has doubled in the past 20 years; the number of baccalaureate degrees has also doubled. The CCAF is conferring record numbers of associate’s degrees and has recently reached a milestone of 450,000. While this is an impressive trend, it is imperative we shape this educational investment toward competencies the Air Force values and needs. Over time, EPME has done just that.

The Birth of EPME

The birth and evolution of EPME paralleled the increasing trends for postsecondary education. In 1951 Air Training Command split flying and technical training into two distinct organizations to meet the increasing demands due to the Korean War. The technical training component became the Technical Training Air Force (TTAF). One year later, a letter from Headquarters TTAF established the requirement for NCO leadership development within the technical training community. There was increasing recognition that “technical skill...alone did not meet the overall qualifications for noncommissioned Airmen.” TTAF’s initiative, however, was not the first of its kind; this historical distinction belongs to the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). Established in 1950, the Academy of Leadership and Management in Wiesbaden, West Germany, educated and developed enlisted men and women throughout USAFE. While there were several other similar experiments across the Air Force at the time, TTAF’s effort was the seed corn for EPME as we know it today.

During the 1950s, numerous organizations throughout the Air Force created their own schoolhouses and academies. Commanders and other leaders began to more fully appreciate the benefit of investing in our NCOs by providing them with these professional developmental opportunities. Perhaps the most celebrated Air Force leader to get behind this effort was Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, then commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC). On 26 January 1953, General LeMay issued SAC General Order 10, creating an official command-wide EPME program. The April 1955 edition of Air Force Magazine featured a full-length article on one of SAC’s NCO academies. It described a school that was notably more “military” than the education-centric programs we have today. The students endured numerous room inspections, uniform assessments, and hours of drill practice in addition to classroom lectures and other activities. When the students were asked if the Air Force should expand the NCO Academy program, their response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. While the Air Force as an institution was not quite ready to make such an investment, other major commands (MAJCOM) were unwilling to wait and began following SAC’s example. Soon there were leadership schools and NCO academies throughout the Air Force. By late 1955, academies had been established at six Air Force bases around the globe. Curriculum at these schools, however, continued to be locally developed; quality and content varied wildly.

Major commands tended to develop lesson plans suited to their unique mission requirements or aligned to their organizational culture and priorities. NCOs might attend a school accentuating drill and ceremonies in one command, while their peers were getting a heavy dose of personnel management in another. This model met the needs and desires of respective commanders, but it wasn’t long before savvy Air Force leaders realized the need for consistency. Centrally developing and assigning specific course content eliminated disparate priorities and established standardization and professionalism. Furthermore, it eliminated the often redundant educational experience that Airmen received when moving from one command to another. In 1955 one particular innovation provided a wellspring for all future EPME courses: the creation of a formalized enlisted force structure, complete with defined responsibilities for each tier and rank. Never before had such clear roles and responsibilities been articulated. Later that year, Air Force regulation 39-6, The Enlisted Force Structure, was approved. The Enlisted Force Structure has had a profound influence on EPME curricula ever since.

Institutionalizing Developmental Education

Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Gen. Nathan F. Twining signed Air Force regulation 50-39, Air Force Enlisted Professional Military Education, on 30 January 1957. The new regulation was the starting gun for a decade of increased standardization. The content of AFR 50-39 was largely the result of a conference the year prior, attended by representatives from several of the major NCO academies. The overarching theme of the conference was eliminating the inconsistencies of course curriculum. While MAJCOMs continued to develop their own EPME courses, the policy revision in 1960 limited the curriculum to only the specific topics listed in the regulation.

The one notable exception to this rule was the establishment of an Air National Guard (ANG) NCO Academy at McGhee Tyson ANG Base in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the late 1960s. This entire effort was the brainchild of Maj. Gen. I. G. Brown, the first ANG director. In 1966 General Brown was invited by the NCO Academy at Hamilton AFB, California, to be their graduation speaker. He came away so impressed by the experience — and by the vice commandant, CMSgt Paul H. Lankford—that he hired the chief as part of a team to create an NCO academy specifically for the Guard. Both the general and the chief have become part of our rich total force heritage; their legacy lives on through the Paul H. Lankford EPME Center and its parent organization, the I. G. Brown Training and Education Center—both located at McGhee Tyson ANG Base.

As the drive for standardization settled into a more incremental pace, other efforts began to emerge that further institutionalized EPME across the Air Force. For example, an update to AFR 50-39 authorized graduates from PME to receive an official letter of recognition and entitled those Airmen to wear the NCO Academy Graduate Ribbon (the ribbon was created in 1962, but clear approval of who could wear it did not occur until 1970). Several schools that had been shut down due to conflicting budget priorities were reopened, including the NCO Academy at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. This particular schoolhouse was reopened by a senior NCO who would go on to become the fifth CMSAF, Robert D. Gaylor. Chief Gaylor had been an honor graduate of the same academy in 1965, then went on to serve as an instructor until it closed the following year. Less than two years later, he was called upon to reopen the schoolhouse doors.7 These fits and starts were, unfortunately, typical of the time.

Another CMSAF, from an earlier time, featured prominently in our EPME heritage. In 1967 Chief Paul Airey was trailblazing this brand new position called the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Among many important enlisted issues of the time, he decided to take on the expansion of PME, articulating the need for a higher level of development through a Senior NCO Academy (SNCOA). According to Chief Airey, Air Force leadership did not embrace this effort and were emphatic in their position, citing a lack of available funds.8 Three years later as the CMSAF baton was passed from Chief Airey to Donald L. Harlow and again to Richard D. Kisling, the environment was growing ripe for change. “We had become too sophisticated and centralized,” said Chief Kisling. “We expected people to be highly technical specialists, supervisors, and NCOs, without the benefit of adequate training and experience. We needed to develop our NCOs like our officers...We needed a first-class PME system for our enlisted force.”

Chief Kisling finally worked through the funding challenges and received approval to establish a SNCO Academy; however, he still had one hurdle to overcome. There were certain voices advocating for the new academy to be for first sergeants only—a decision he thought “would be wrong for the entire Air Force.” Finally, once this battle was won — and the original intent was made clear—he saw the plan come to fruition. In 1972 CSAF Gen. John Ryan signed US Air Force Decision Number D-72-8, formally establishing the SNCOA. (In 1986, the main building that housed the SNCO Academy was named Kisling Hall in his honor.)

This became the highest level of EPME until the creation of the Chief’s Leadership Course in 2005, over 30 years later. In a post retirement interview, CMSAF Don Harlow proudly spoke of his hard work and advocacy toward this effort. In his final assessment, “I thought it was the greatest thing we ever did.” The inaugural class graduated on 3 March 1973. Among the 120 graduates were three future CMSAFs: Thomas N. Barnes, James M. McCoy, and Sam E. Parish.

Although new policies helped institutionalize EPME, the early 1970s were still a time of measured growth and uneven grass roots efforts across the Air Force. In fact, future CMSAF Robert D. Gaylor was transferred to USAFE in 1971 for the sole purpose of building an ad hoc professional development experience for their NCOs. Chief Gaylor recalls this effort:

“I would have preferred to activate a full-scale NCO academy in USAFE, but we had neither the funds nor [the] facility. As an interim [measure], we established the Command Management Center at Lindsey Air Force Station [Germany]. We renovated an old building to house students and presented a sixty-hour course of instruction on leadership/management skills, communicative skills, and contemporary issues to hundreds of USAFE NCOs from throughout the command.”

The demand for the education was unmistakable. Chief Gaylor noted that “our reputation was so high that NCOs were begging for a slot. Our center was the forerunner to the eventual opening of the USAFE NCO academy in 1975.”

The introduction of AFR 50-39 advanced the ongoing effort to develop a more homogenous curriculum. It specified required subjects, and established educational objectives and samples of behavior for each of the five levels of EPME. Individual schools still wrote their own curriculum, but it was mandated that course content support the required educational objectives and samples of behavior construct. This not only impacted content but also introduced a level of academic rigor that had been previously absent. In many ways, EPME began to look very much like we know it today. Additional supporting policy changes were also underway.

On 1 June 1976, as a requirement to assume NCO status, senior airmen were required to complete the NCO Orientation Course during their first year as an E-4 (this was when the Air Force had two E-4 ranks, senior airman and sergeant). PME was no longer a “nice-to-have” — it was woven into the fabric of an enlisted Airman’s career.15 The NCO Orientation and NCO Supervisor Course [PME 1 & 2] became the first serious effort to regulate curriculum from a centralized organization. To enable this new undertaking, the Air Force established the NCO PME Division at the Leadership and Management Development Center (LMDC) — later renamed the Center for Professional Development at Air University — and charged it with writing the course curriculum for the entire force.

Later, in the mid-1980s, the Air Force combined PME 1 and 2 and created a preparatory course for E-4s with a focus on supervision and leadership. The course also was notably more challenging, with the introduction of formalized testing and more stringent graduation requirements.

The EPME Conferences of 1980 and 1985

There have been symposiums and conferences throughout the history of EPME, but two major conferences during the 1980s were particularly pivotal in shaping significant policy decisions that defined EPME for decades to come. The first, heralded as the 1980 Biennial NCO PME Conference, addressed a staggering 116 recommendations, ultimately approving 37 for implementation.17 The conference goals were varied and aggressive; attendees were asked to establish annual requirements for in-resident attendance at all EPME schools, develop manpower standards, optimize quota sharing between MAJCOMs, better integrate EPME with other training requirements, and adjust curriculum based upon the typical tasks that enlisted members perform at various levels in their career progression. While the EPME enterprise still consisted of individually owned schools across the major commands, the rule sets, policies, and curriculum became increasingly centralized.

CMSAF James M. McCoy participated in this conference. He had much to offer, as he had held multiple EPME jobs throughout his career, including instructor, commandant, course developer, and staff action officer. When he was assigned to headquarters, SAC, he established and provided oversight to the SAC NCO Academy and NCO Leadership programs. As CMSAF McCoy closed the conference, attendees reviewed some of the approved changes “to include allowing more members to attend, to more evenly space PME throughout a career and to minimize redundancy between phases.” They also approved the development of a formal awards and recognition program. Numerous initiatives, on the other hand, were rejected outright, including awarding promotion points to graduates, administering reading tests prior to attendance, giving volunteers preferential selections, developing a distance learning program for the NCO Leadership School, and providing special duty pay for instructors. Many of the issues raised in this symposium were discussed and debated further in a conference that took place five years l ater.

One of our future CMSAFs—Jim Finch—taught enlisted PME as a young NCO during this time. Chief Finch started as an NCO Orientation Course instructor in 1980 and eventually became the director of education at the Homestead PME Center. As an instructor and faculty member, he became very familiar with the issues from the 1980 conference; in fact, the Homestead PME Center hosted a similar conference in 1984. One specific topic became a major concern through the 1980s: the accreditation process.

Some schools, such as Homestead, had already been independently accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; they lost credit hours once they were centralized and became affiliates of CCAF. While the evolving affiliation process eventually led to a much better result, the growing pains were frustrating and required hard work and effort.

CMSAF Finch’s contribution to EPME continued throughout his entire career. After writing local curriculum for the Homestead NCO Leadership School, he worked at Air University—first writing course content, then teaching at the instructor course. In 1988 he became the Air Force PME functional manager and worked many of the issues discussed in these conferences. One of the more important policy efforts he worked on was finding a way to make the SNCO Academy a master sergeant school. While initially successful, a growing promotion rate and increased attendance from Total Force and sister service members made continuing the policy problematic. There simply was not enough capacity, and the cost was too high. The idea of moving SNCO Academy attendance “to the left” continued to be both a desire and a challenge for many years. In his very next assignment, Chief Finch put the policies he had been working on into action as the commandant, Pacific Air Forces NCO Academy at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.

In 1983, while Jim Finch was still learning the ropes as a director of education, Chief Sam Parish became the CMSAF. Two years later, he put his stamp on EPME through the 1985 NCO PME Policy Conference, hosted by the very NCO Academy that CMSAF McCoy helped establish. The core of this conference was the debate over whether students who failed to meet the 70-percent academic standard should be eliminated from the course and, subsequently, no longer eligible for promotion. As mentioned previously, the Air Force was beginning to levy more leadership responsibilities on mid-level NCOs around this time. To that end, the “whole person concept” was born, stressing the importance of learning more than one’s primary job. An enlisted leader must also gain expertise in leadership, supervision, communication, and other elements of professional development.

Several other topics with long-term implications were addressed as well, including opportunity rates for in-resident attendance. The momentum was shifting from a capacity-based model to one centered on Air Force needs. The attendees recommended a goal of 95-percent opportunity for E-5s to attend NCO Leadership School by their ninth year of service and 89-percent rate for E-6s to attend by their 15th year. Other issues included decisions on the weight management program, the overseas EPME quota process, standardizing course length across the MAJCOMs, and using the academic models of psychomotor and affective domains developed by the renowned education expert Norman Gronlund. This last decision demonstrates the increased sophistication in course development that would strengthen EPME in the near future.

Although not part of the 1985 NCO PME Conference, there was one more noteworthy change in the mid-1980s. Established largely thanks to the advocacy of CMSAF Parish, the John Levitow Award is perhaps the most recognized honor among enlisted Airmen. A1C John Levitow received the Medal of Honor on 14 May 1970 for his heroic actions during Vietnam. When President Richard Nixon presented Levitow with his medal, he was the only enlisted Airman to receive this honor since the Air Force became a separate service. For Chief Parish, naming this award after Airman Levitow accomplished two goals. First, it created an appropriately professional level of recognition beyond honor graduate. Second, he thought “it would be a great way for the enlisted force to learn a little of our enlisted history—and to get his name known by all enlisted members.”

Elevated Status and Focus on Curriculum

The 1990s brought legitimacy and an elevated status to EPME. There was a flurry of activity and an enterprise-wide spotlight on enlisted programs. One key initiative—the result of the 1990 NCO PME Conference hosted by CMSAF James C. Binnicker—combined the first two levels of EPME, removing the NCO Leadership School and replacing and expanding the NCO Preparatory Course with Airman Leadership School (ALS). (Not coincidentally, renaming the first level of EPME came on the heels of eliminating the E-4 sergeant rank.) All senior airmen were required to graduate from ALS before assuming the role of supervisor with rater responsibilities. The initiative also mandated 100 percent attendance to resident PME. Resource streams previously unavailable suddenly broke free. Schoolhouses around the Air Force began to receive the funding necessary to finally upgrade computers, classroom equipment, and furniture. Enlisted PME schools across the Air Force were beginning to look and feel more professional. In short, it made a difference. One year later, Air University stood up the College of EPME (CEPME), today called the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education. This was a wing equivalent organization, much like Air War College or Air Command and Staff College. Suddenly, EPME was a near-peer to their officer counterparts. The new organization was officially assigned the responsibility for standardized curriculum and governance across the Air Force.

Although CEPME stood up in 1991, the MAJCOMs continued to own and operate NCO academies well into 1992. MAJCOMs controlled production rates and owned the seats, which forced students to travel further to attend their MAJCOM-owned facilities rather than attending a perfectly good school nearer to their home station. This was a problem during the 1980s and continued into the early 1990s. In an attempt to offset these costs, the Air Force hosted annual “quota sharing” conferences to trade seats and save money. By 1990 these became “quota distribution” conferences, and in 1992, the Air Force automated the process to further shift the focus on cost and efficiency. Numerous audits of the NCO PME program indicated waste in temporary duty dollars due to MAJCOM desires to fill their own NCOA seats. Consequently, there was considerable pressure to develop centralized curriculum and put the NCO academies under one command.

In 1993 this became a reality for the continental United States NCO academies when they were officially realigned from the MAJCOMs to Air University. With centralized control finally secured, the next area of debate was course content. What should we teach our enlisted Airmen?

As one might imagine, the answer to this question was contentious and discussed with vigor by our most senior leaders—both officers and enlisted. There are dozens of lessons that existed in 1990 that are no longer taught in our classrooms. Topics like “Respect for the Flag,” “Communism,” and “Drug and Alcohol Abuse” reflect the culture and geopolitical environment of the time. Other subjects were timeless: “Standards and Discipline,” “Professional Relations,” and “Leadership and Management.” The Enlisted Force Development Panel—part of the Air Force corporate process—wrestled with a list of educational outcomes but came to realize there should be a separate process whereby certain institutional competencies are assigned to Airmen based on their current or projected grade. These competencies—for all Airmen—have matured and evolved. They are now part of Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, and have been folded into our Air Force leadership doctrine, becoming the engine that drives EPME content. All competencies are integrated into each course so Airmen develop the competence, confidence, and courage to execute assigned responsibilities mandated by The Enlisted Force Structure.

From an organizational and structural point of view, EPME has remained fairly stable over the past 15–20 years. Nearly every base still has an Airman Leadership School; there are a dozen NCO academies across the globe; and there is still the one and only SNCOA, established in 1972. A few programs, however, have sprung up to augment and round out enlisted development. One such program that still exists today was the NCO Professional Development Seminar, a legacy of CMSAF Eric W. Benken in the late 1990s. As for PME, there were certainly discussions about policy and content, but, for the most part, it was characterized by consistency, becoming part of our Air Force culture and an essential building block to a successful enlisted career.

CMSAF Advocacy and the Way Ahead

The consistent involvement of our top enlisted leaders in EPME clearly demonstrates the importance it has had—and continues to have—in enlisted development. It is impossible—and beyond the scope of this chapter—to properly pay homage to each CMSAF and the role they played in the advancement of EPME. “Firsts” and major organizational and policy changes dominate the narrative because there is a tangible historical record to reference.

When CMSAF Thomas N. Barnes assumed his responsibilities as the CMSAF in 1973, he found an Air Force that lacked a real commitment to EPME. In his estimation, the entire effort was put on hold during the Vietnam War. Of his exhaustive list of contributions to the Air Force during his tenure, Chief Barnes was most proud to be a champion for EPME. Decades later, during the budget crisis of 2012, CMSAF James A. Roy passionately protected and defended enlisted force development programs from potentially devastating cuts. His advocacy ensured EPME survived the ill effects of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Other changes, though significant, are often known only by a few people. For example, CMSAF Gerald R. Murray’s impact on EPME was profound but less direct; he ensured our enlisted Airmen had the right training and cultural mind-set to take on the increasing expeditionary nature of the Air Force in the early 2000s. He did not accomplish this through specific policy changes but through leadership. His influence on EPME curriculum was noteworthy and had a substantial effect on enlisted Airmen. Depending on the challenges and priorities at the time, just keeping the schoolhouse doors open could be considered a notable accomplishment.

When CMSAF James A. Cody was selected as the 17th CMSAF in 2013, he was serving as the Air Education and Training Command command chief. Consequently, he already had a deep understanding of EPME. In fact, Chief Cody had already set into motion the most transformational change the PME enterprise had experienced in decades. He sought a new model and new supporting policies that would accomplish the following objectives: (1) take advantage of recent advances in technology and distance learning; (2) deliver relevant education to our Airmen earlier in their careers; (3) facilitate broader Total Force participation; (4) focus the resident program on more experiential and relevant learning models; and (5) design an architecture that can more readily adapt to ever-changing fiscal environments.

Perhaps the most tangible and noteworthy benefit is the implementation of the blended learning model. Students in the NCO Academy and SNCO Academy now meet their core education requirements through a distance learning (DL) course. The DL portion is followed by a completely reinvented in-residence course. Now called the Intermediate Leadership Experience for NCO Academy, and the Advanced Leadership Experience for SNCO Academy, students no longer sit for hours listening to podium instructors, having learned the material in the DL portion. Instead, they dive headlong into student-led projects and problem-solving activities based on real-world issues they bring from their home units. Further, they work in multiple team environments; many students come away with the most candid and powerful peer feedback they have received in their entire careers. The material is challenging and, from an academic perspective, taking our senior NCOs to higher levels of learning than ever before. Most importantly, students have repeatedly given high praise for the relevance of the course content.

What is next? Only time will tell. One vision is to further modularize the DL content and spread the material out over an Airman’s career, making the courses easier to digest and less a series of “mountaintop experiences.” Ideally, there will be greater flexibility and choice, as long as enough EPME credits are achieved by certain milestones, Airmen may have a say in which modules they take and when they take them. Smaller, more-focused modules are easier to update. Further, delivery methodologies can vary; course developers can match their lesson content with the delivery option that makes sense for that topic. For example, some lessons may lend themselves to a mostly narrative style of delivery for selfstudy, while others may benefit from a more interactive online interface where a cohort of students can share experiences and online instructors can guide the conversation.

This is just one possible future. Clearly, this is an unfinished journey.