Will Fighter Pilot Shortage Change Military Retention Practices?

If you get three talent acquisition folks around a table, they’re pretty often going to start talking about the hardest job they ever had to fill. “Oh yeah, I once had to fill a nuclear physicist who could read Sanskrit in Dubuque, IA.” I know….sexy, right? Downright hot.

Bloomberg had an article last week that made me think of those silly conversations framed around development and retention. Now Hiring: Must Be Willing to Work at Mach 1 is about the US Air Force and their need to hire and retain pilots. The Air Force could be 700 fighter pilots below its needs by the end of the year, and it is short another 200 drone pilots. I know the USAF is big, but a 900 pilot delta feels sorta significant.

There are a bunch of reasons why they’re short, but retention of their current pilot corps is a big one. Here’s the piece that stuck out:

But perhaps the biggest boost could come from a comprehensive reform of the Pentagon’s archaic up-or-out promotion policies, under which officers deemed unsuited for top commands are pushed out of uniform before they qualify for full retirement benefits. Some pilots might just want to stay in the cockpit their entire careers rather than being promoted out of it, and the military should be more flexible in allowing them to do so.

What’s more, tens of thousands of commercial pilots are near the federally mandated retirement age of 65 — so current Air Force pilots will soon have a lot more help-wanted ads to sift through.

Personally, I’ve always struggled recruiting for jobs where there is no career path. Nurses, flight attendants, cops, teachers—those are mission-based roles, and I assume pilots are similar. Those jobs, however, don’t force promotions up.

I am trying to image what the retention conversation is like with these pilots:

“Hey Sally, you’ve got this really technical and niche skill set that’s highly valued in the marketplace. No, really, tons of people would hire you away from us tomorrow, and we have a huge need for your skill set after investing years in your training.

However, compared to your peers, we’ve decided you’re not in the top leadership group for the next level. You’re a great pilot but an average leader. We won’t promote you. So goodbye.”

Will this shortage of pilots get the US Military to change their legacy up or promotion process? Unlikely. The article notes that, like most businesses with problems, they’ll likely throw money at the issues and increase one-time retention bonuses from 25k to 60k.  Good luck with that.

I am a huge fan of our armed service members, and these folks are the best of the best. I wish there was an easier fix to this.

FOT Note: This rant is brought to you by the good folks at OutMatch who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our Talent Selection and Employee Development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). 

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...

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