ARLINGTON, Va. — About 900 Air Force noncommissioned officers will soon be put on notice that they need to voluntarily pick a new career field, or the Air Force will pick one for them.

The “nonvoluntary retraining” program, as Air Force officials call it, is the service’s long-standing method of moving NCOs out of overmanned specialties, where promotions are stagnating, and into undermanned jobs, where they are desperately needed to meet mission requirements.

“It’s a force-balancing tool,” Tech. Sgt. Derek Hughes, noncommissioned officer in charge of Air Force retraining, said in a telephone interview Thursday from the service’s personnel center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

But the last time the Air Force did an involuntary retraining was 1998. Air Staff officials decided to make some changes to the program halfway through the 1999 process.

Those changes included shortening the program from three to two phases and making the pool of possible re-trainees servicewide, instead of telling each major command to produce a certain percentage of nonvolunteers.

Involuntary retraining is back with the changes now in place. The 2003 program aimed at rectifying shortages of noncommissioned officers created by post-Sept. 11 operational requirements.

In April, Air Force officials decided the service needs 1,400 NCOs to move into undermanned fields such as security personnel, computer systems operators, cryptologists and linguists. Next, the officials kicked off Phase I, the “voluntary” part of the nonvoluntary training program.

That meant sending letters to about 4,200 airmen that informed them they were potentially vulnerable to involuntary retraining, and asking that they pre-empt the process by volunteering to move to a different job.

Three times more airmen were put on notice than were actually needed to switch, in order to widen the volunteer pool, Hughes said.

But only about 485 airmen responded to the call to move into undermanned jobs, not enough to meet the service’s requirements, Hughes said.

So now comes Phase II of the program, in which the Air Force is no longer asking airmen to volunteer. Now, it’s telling them.

Beginning around July 7, about 900 NCOs who are at the top of the list in overmanned fields will be notified they have until Aug. 15 to take control of the process by submitting a “wish list” of new career field preferences.

The service isn’t playing around with 3-to-1 margins of error this time, Hughes said. The number of airmen notified will equal the number of undermanned positions the service needs to fill.

“Everyone who gets notified is going to be retrained,” he said.

Those airmen who do not submit a list will be asked to retrain anyway — and Air Force personnel officials will choose the field. Personnel officials are strongly encouraging vulnerable NCOs not to wait for the service to make the choice.

“They should volunteer,” Hughes said. “That way, they have control over their future.”

NCOs can submit a retraining wish list of up to five alternate career field choices, and “we’ll try to get them their first choice,” based on the NCO’s qualifications and the number of open slots still available in the alternate field.

“The earlier they apply, the more opportunities they will have” to get the new field of their choice, Hughes said.

Anyone who doesn’t volunteer to move and gets an involuntary assignment but subsequently refuses to make the switch will be treated in the same way as a servicemember who refuses an assignment, Hughes said. They will become ineligible for promotion and reenlistment.

That almost certainly means recalcitrant airmen will end up leaving the service when their next date of separation comes up, Hughes said.

But personnel officials hope it won’t come to that.

“The message we want to send is, ‘The Air Force needs and wants you. But we need you to do a different job right now,’” Hughes said.

Airmen can check exactly how vulnerable they are to nonvoluntary retraining by going to

The site updates its listings by grade and Air Force specialty code every week, and also has details about the retraining program.

Airmen can also go to their military personnel flight offices for the same information, Hughes said.

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