Apprentices With a Difference

Dec. 1, 1988

Small groups of airmen have been leaving Chanute AFB, Ill., as “four-level” jet-engine mechan­ics and moving into units of Tactical Air Command. Actually, there is no such thing as a four-level specialist. In the hierarchy of Air Force Spe­cialty Codes (AFSCs), enlisted members leave technical training as three-level apprentices and train on the job until they qualify as five-level journeymen.

Chanute has been holding a hand­ful of its jet-engine students at the training center for an additional month of hands-on training on the Fl00 engine. The idea is to give them an added advantage in later on-the-job training (OJT). In early 1989, TAC and Air Training Com­mand will decide if the approach is working and if it is worth using in other specialties. ATC officials say that early feedback from the experi­ment is encouraging.

To understand why this fairly modest departure from traditional training patterns has the experts ex­cited, consider the process by which the Air Force traditionally transforms raw recruits into skilled specialists.

For most of this century, enlisted members have spent their first sev­eral weeks at basic military training (BMT) learning how to march, make beds, and distinguish a master sergeant from a major general. Be­fore weapons and equipment be­came so complicated, most airmen then went directly to using com­mands, where they learned their skills by understudying more expe­rienced specialists.

As technology invaded more and more specialties, however, growing numbers of BMT graduates were sent on to technical training centers such as Chanute. Today, more than ninety percent receive at least some formal specialty schooling.

How Much Is Enough

With this growth of tech training came the question: How much is enough? Theoretically, airmen could be kept in school until they were fully qualified mechanics. During that time, however, they would be costing the government money and contributing nothing to the Air Force mission. And suppose they didn’t reenlist

The alternative was to teach airmen only the barest essentials be­fore turning them over to the using commands. That way, they could begin to earn their keep in a matter of weeks. That posed another prob­lem. After only a fast few weeks of formal training, the novices couldn’t just be turned loose on multimillion-dollar aircraft.

The solution that has evolved is a compromise between the quick-­and-dirty approach and full voca­tional education. Today’s tech school graduates are three-level ap­prentices who know the fundamen­tals of their skills and enough to do at least simple tasks under close su­pervision. They receive continuing OJT from their supervisors, and Air Training Command continues to provide follow-on training with some ninety field training activities.

Still, there are problems. One is that the demand for ATC field train­ing is so heavy that airmen may have to wait up to six months for it. In the meantime, the bulk of the training burden falls on the airmen’s imme­diate supervisors. Today’s OJT pro­grams require them to be teachers as well as bosses. En route to the five level, airmen must complete de­tailed blocks of training, all under close scrutiny. The recordkeeping of OJT alone is staggering. More­over, such training ties up aircraft, engines, and other resources that the units can ill afford to spare.

In the past, the services had little to do in peacetime except to train for the next shooting war, so the Air Force was able to accept such con­ditions. But today’s “peace” is not the conventional lull between storms. A command such as TAC rarely has the luxury of taking time out to teach new recruits at a lei­surely pace. Increasingly, it needs new arrivals who can hit the ground running.

Clearly, some new approach was needed. The simplest answer would seem to be just to keep students in the classrooms longer. Just teaching more of the fundamentals, however, would not necessarily make airmen more productive when they hit the field.

ATC’s Experiment

Two years ago, ATC began to look for another solution. What if it kept a small number of students in tech school just a little longer and gave them not more training in fun­damentals but more of the practical, hands-on experience they would get in an operational unit? Would they be able to earn their keep any faster in the using commands and thus off­set the time lost in delaying their graduation

In October 1987, ATC decided to give the idea a try. A small cadre of students in the jet engine mainte­nance course (426×2) at Chanute was chosen to stay an additional four weeks at the center. They would receive a little more class­room training, but most of their time would be spent working on F100 en­gines under conditions as close as Chanute could come to those they would meet in TAC units.

To measure the results, ATC would track the graduates of the lon­ger course and a similar number from the shorter, traditional three-level course and compare their progress.

The experiment became known as the “four-level program,” but of­ficials are careful always to use the term in quotes. The graduates still earn only three-level specialty codes. As the term implies, the add­ed training is designed to give them a leg up in their progress toward the five-level AFSC.

The fact that ATC has added a few weeks of training is no big news. Training courses are frequently lengthened and shortened. What is different in this case is that the “four-level” training will be consid­ered a success even if the graduates are no further along some months from now than the airmen who com­pleted the shorter three-level course.

So why all the fuss

Value to the Unit

Brig. Gen. Joel McKean, Com­mander of Chanute Technical Train­ing Center when the new program was launched, explains. At some point during their first enlistments, General McKean says, the three-level and “four-level” graduates are expected to be neck-and-neck in their race for five-level AFSCs. The graduates of the longer course will not necessarily get there faster.

However, they should be more valuable to their TAC units in two ways. First, the “four-level” gradu­ates should become productive faster. If the added hands-on training works, they will arrive already fa­miliar with the work environment of real-world engine shops. They will be accustomed to following tech­nical orders and will know the F100 engine like an old friend.

Second—and more important in terms of readiness, says General McKean—TAC should not have to tie up as many of its own resources breaking in the new graduates. In a command where readiness is an ob­session, having weapons and troops ready to move on a moment’s notice is a major virtue.

So far, feedback from the field suggests that ATC’s version of the Head Start program is working. Graduates of the “four-level” pro­gram have gone to nine TAC bases, where they will be compared with the control group of three-level gradu­ates until the Air Force Human Re­sources Laboratory makes its final report on the success of the experi­ment. Meanwhile, Chanute con­tinues to move small numbers of students through the longer course in order to keep its training resourc­es in place.

Most Chanute officials seem con­vinced that the “four-level” program will become a permanent fixture. In fact, ATC is already considering command suggestions for applying the approach to other AFSCs. Bringing more training “back into the schoolhouse,” as ATC puts it, would relieve commands of the growing burden of OJT and allow some reduction in field training ac­tivities.

Drawbacks and Limitations

Even champions of the approach concede that it has some drawbacks and would not work for all spe­cialties. Jet engine maintenance training was considered a natural for the program. TAC units can’t spare many of the expensive power-plants for training purposes, but neither can they turn unseasoned mechanics loose on their opera­tional equipment. The more hands-on experience Chanute can give them in its make-believe engine shops, the better. The problem is not as critical in other specialties, and added training for its own sake may not be justified.

Then, too, even the hands-on ex­perience at Chanute is not a perfect substitute for experience in an op­erational unit. Chanute’s sprawling hangars have the look and feel of the real thing, but the base’s runways haven’t borne operational traffic in years. The only bombers and fight­ers that dot the landscape these days are static displays, some of them twice as old as the students who train here.

Short of bringing back live aircraft, there is no way to create the atmosphere of a functioning flight line. SSgt. John Davis, an instructor in the basic jet-engine maintenance course, agrees that the “four-level” training should help airmen des­tined to work in engine shops, but he suggests that those who go to the flight line will still need heavy doses of OJT.

TSgt. Donald Bishop, a master instructor in jet engines, con­cedes that “four-level” training is designed primarily to prepare stu­dents for shop work. He argues that hands-on experience should help them on the flight line as well. A 1973 graduate from Chanute now on his second tour as an instructor, Ser­geant Bishop had his first exposure to the “four-level” program as an end-of-course evaluator. In day-long sessions with each student, he ran them through a series of tasks and rated their performance.

Sergeant Bishop now instructs in the new program itself and tries as far as is possible to duplicate the conditions he remembers from his own days in the engine shop at Can­non AFB, N. M. Playing the role of supervisor as much as instructor, he encourages students to work on their own more than they have done under the more formal conditions of the classroom.

Graduates More Confident

Lani Krumwiede shares instruc­tor duties with Sergeant Bishop and echoes his enthusiasm for the train­ing. A GS-9 civilian, she also is a master instructor. She says she found an “amazing” difference be­tween the confidence levels of three-level graduates and those of students who have been through the added month. Part of the confi­dence-building, she says, comes from the practice of having students not only work independently but also take turns acting as crew chief to gain an added sense of responsi­bility.

In this respect, Ms. Krumwiede says, the “four-level” course uses the approach she has favored in her fourteen years as an instructor. “If you are going to train jet-engine me­chanics, you should do it by letting them be jet-engine mechanics. If they need guidance, you give it, but most of the time, you let them follow the tech orders and do the job in the same way they would in the field.”

The learning-by-doing approach was built into the “four-level” program from the beginning. Bill Rich­ardson, training manager, was in on the birth of the course. In the early stages, he said, planners met with TAC officials and asked what they would like to see in the training. They also asked shop chiefs at Langley AFB, Va. The consensus from these chiefs was that the added four weeks should be packed with as much hands-on training as possi­ble.

How well it all works should be apparent soon. If the “four-level” graduates do as well as expected, students in some other skills may find themselves ankle-deep in OJT even before leaving Chanute or other tech training centers.

After active-duty service during both World War II and Korea, Bruce D. Callander (who earned a degree in journalism between the wars) joined the staff of Air Force Times in 1952, becoming editor in 1972. Mr. Callander is now a free-lance writer whose by-line appeared most recently in AIR FORCE Magazine with “When You Call It an Airline, Smile” in the August ’88 issue.