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Research Questions

  1. Is the USAF’s long-standing approach to enlisted skills management sufficiently flexible to achieve its future objectives?
  2. What modifications or new approaches to managing USAF enlisted skills might meet the demands of a changing and uncertain future?

For decades, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) has used Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) as the backbone of its occupational classification system. But with goals to develop airmen with cross-functional skills while also developing and retaining airmen with sufficient depth in advanced technical skills, questions are starting to arise as to whether this long-standing approach to skills management is sufficiently flexible to achieve future objectives.

In this report, the authors document the findings and recommendations from a RAND Project AIR FORCE study that explored options for addressing both the breadth (across career fields) and depth (within career fields) of the USAF enlisted skills management system.

The authors used multiple methods in conducting their work, including (1) a review of relevant regulatory, policy, and skills management literature; (2) interviews with USAF stakeholders (system customers, enlisted assignment teams, and process experts); (3) a demonstration of how natural language processing can be leveraged to provide insights about enlisted occupational specialties; and (4) a workshop with USAF enlisted representatives to discuss an advanced technical track for managing technical talent. 

The report concludes with findings and recommendations for options to improve the USAF enlisted skills management system. Appendixes detail the study's methodology and provide background information to supplement the main findings of the report.

Key Findings

  • Current processes for determining skill requirements are useful but limited. Skill qualifications and training are not centrally managed by any single USAF-wide system, making it difficult to compare skill supply and demand across specialties or to identify skill trends.
  • The Talent Marketplace is a step in the right direction but has room for improvement. Currently in beta testing, this platform will improve the process of matching airmen to available positions. But barriers to scale and sustain the system exist.
  • The assignment system is constrained by policy and resources. Within the assignment system, airmen in the same AFSC, skill level, and grade are assumed to have similar skill proficiency, with little to no accommodation for specialized skills developed throughout a career.
  • Career field structure is deeply embedded in regulation and policy. AFSCs not only support human resources management but also enable USAF to comply with congressional and Department of Defense mandates related to personnel utilization and classification.
  • The skills management system is optimized within, not across, career fields. This structure creates a challenge in developing airmen to work across functional lines and can hinder career advancements for airmen who are assigned to unique missions.
  • The current institutional track does not meet needs for managing technical talent. In the institutional track, airmen become supervisors and leaders as they move through their careers—careers focused on managing personnel and resources, not on continuing to develop and apply technical skills to complex missions.


  • Invest in infrastructure and workflows that automate skill tracking and support cross-functional comparisons. Design features to support analytic processing and options for centralizing new information on needed skill requirements.
  • Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), with policy direction from Manpower, Personnel and Services (AF/A1) and Air Education and Training Command should incorporate opportunities to leverage natural language processing to extract and synthesize skill demands.
  • Simplify waiver authority for assignments in high-value skill areas to increase assignment flexibility. As part of the continued Talent Marketplace test, AF/A1 (with analytic support from AFPC) could select several high-demand AFSCs or high-value skill areas to test simplified waiver procedures, which would accelerate their approval.
  • Determine if cross-functional requirements are translated into enlisted career field plans. AF/A1 should review how cross-functional requirements from enlisted functional advisory councils are being translated into career field management plans and address disconnects.
  • Continue to pursue an advanced technical track for enlisted career fields. Factors that need to be considered in developing and implementing a technical track include clear objectives and expectations, flexibility with incentives, and a defined minimum size of the career field to sustain a technical track.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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