The Air Force has begun its annual balancing act, asking people to move from career fields top-heavy with midlevel noncommissioned officers to fields with shortages.

And if 1,100 staff sergeants, technical sergeants and master sergeants don’t raise their hands and step forward by Feb. 23, the service will begin an involuntary phase, selecting people for retraining and choosing their new careers for them.

Air Force officials do this yearly as career fields get out of tune. Some people leave the service; some stay. Some get promoted; some don’t. It all upsets the equilibrium of career fields, known as Air Force Specialty Codes, or AFSC.

For example, 88 technical sergeants and 42 master sergeants in aerospace maintenance must change jobs because their AFSC is one of about 35 on the surplus list.

“We do need them” in the Air Force. “We just don’t need them in these fields,” said Chief Master Sgt. Alvin Diaz, chief of the skills management branch at the Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Clinton Minor, Air Force enlisted retraining manager at the Air Force Personnel Center, said the service rarely has to resort to the involuntary phase. But it did last year, after just 1,200 people volunteered when 1,400 were required to change jobs. Minor thinks last year’s involuntary phase might provide impetus for people to volunteer this year.

“Now that they know this program is for real … we’re hoping that people will help us out,” he said.

Diaz said, “We want them to be the ones” to make the decision, “rather than for us to select them. If we have to, we’ll do it.”

By deadline Tuesday, the Air Force had not provided the number of Pacific Air Forces airmen identified for retraining but a handful have been tagged at Yokota and Misawa air bases in Japan.

At Misawa, 10 people are on the list, from career fields such as aircrew protection, aerospace maintenance, civil engineering, medical and vehicle maintenance, said Master Sgt. Yvette Wilhite, superintendent of relocations for the Military Personnel Flight.

While some have asked about the retraining program, no one yet has volunteered, she said.

“One wanted to see ... options; another, he doesn’t want anything to do with it,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel F. Lowe, Yokota’s noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of formal training and retraining.

Said Wilhite, “Their main concern is, ‘What’s going to happen if I don’t volunteer?’ We can’t tell them what’s going to happen. Well, you could be one of those selected for involuntary retraining.”

If needed, the involuntary phase will run from March 8 to April 26.

Senior Airman Octivia Carswell, a retraining counselor with Yokota’s 374th Mission Support Squadron, said during this period, people would be returned to their secondary career field “if they have one and if there’s a need in that career field.” Otherwise, “They’ll be forced to retrain into whatever the Air Force needs.”

At Yokota, one of the six people identified “has come in to set up an appointment to apply for retraining,” Carswell said.

Those who volunteer for retraining can request up to five “open” career fields, Carswell said.

But, she said, “it’s just a request.”

Retraining into a new career field almost guarantees a stateside assignment, a concern voiced by several Misawa NCOs, Lowe said.

“They don’t want to go back to the States,” he said.

Lowe tells them to sit tight to see if there will be an involuntary phase.

“There’s no sense in them jumping the ship if they don’t want to go back to the States,” he said.

Not everyone in top-heavy fields is at risk. The Air Force targets people through such criteria as date of rank, time on station and their DEROS date, or date of estimated return from overseas.

The Air Force tags people approaching their DEROS, leaving newcomers out of the mix.

PACAF and USAFE are looking at people with a DEROS of August 2004 and sooner, officials said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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