Yokota tips, resources for commissioning

Yokota tips, resources for commissioning

by Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Baker, 374th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs
Yokota Air Base

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- This article is part of a series informing Yokota Airmen of career-transition information and assisting programs.

Only 20 percent of the U.S. Air Force is made up of commissioned officers, yet some enlisted Airmen make the transition to become officers. Will you be one who goes from E to O?  

This article provides general knowledge for enlisted commissioning questions such as: "Where should I start?", "How will my life at work change?" and "What characteristics will the commissioning panel be looking for?"  It also provides tips and personal experiences from Lt. Col, James Cunningham, who is prior enlisted and now serves as the 374th Comptroller Squadron commander.  

Not only was Lt. Col. Cunningham once Airman Basic Cunningham, but he also interviewed Officer Training School candidates while serving as a Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor. Now, as a leader and mentor for many Airmen, he is happy to share an inside scoop on the officer selection process.

When selecting officer candidates, Cunningham said the number one thing they were looking for was leadership.

"I can't emphasize the importance of leadership in your selection enough," Cunningham said. "That means doing the best you can at whatever your job is. It also means taking leadership roles as often as you can. For example, don't be just a member of the Airmen's council, be the president or vice president. Coach sports or help out with the Scouts. Don't just volunteer but volunteer as a leader."

The second thing Cunningham said they look for is education. High grades and a technical degree, like electrical engineering, computer engineering and meteorology, both set a candidate apart, he explained. Technical degrees are more critical for Air Force needs. Non-technical degrees typically need even higher grades to be competitive. For more information on technical and nontechnical degrees, visit https://www.afrotc.com/scholarships/schools.

Natasha Jamerson, 374 Force Support Squadron chief of education and training, explained that the current trending Air Force Officer's Qualifying Test scores for those selected to commission are 80 to 90 percent. The high school or college grade point average of those selected is 3.6 to 3.7.

Those numbers might seem high to some, but Cunningham pointed out that he has seen candidates commission despite lower test scores.

"If your leadership qualities are jumping off the page, you've won annual awards and you're highly regarded by your leadership, you can recover from a mid-range score like I did."

Some Airmen selected have not had the most perfect professional record, either.   

"I've seen Airmen who start off with letters of counseling and reprimand, who turn around and get selected for OTS," Cunningham said. "You can make up for your weaknesses by standing out in other areas. Talk to squadron commanders and get honest feedback on your strengths and what you could be doing better."

Cunningham stated that Airmen should know that commissioning is not for everyone. The Air Force relies on strong leaders among its 80 percent enlisted ranks. Also, some prefer the nature of enlisted work.

"A lot of people, like me, want to be down in the weeds and do technical work," Cunningham said. "That was one of the biggest differences that I had to get used to. I had to learn to give up some of the aspects of working side-by-side with my people. I had to pull back, take that leadership position and trust my Airmen to do their jobs."

Yet, Cunningham states that perhaps the biggest difference in work-style is that being an officer pushes one's career into leadership roles more immediately. It is possible to graduate OTS and immediately be in charge of hundreds of Airmen. There are also the expectations that come with that responsibility, such as being the last to leave the office every day.

Despite the challenges of being selected and then adapting to the brass on his collar, commissioning was a natural choice for Cunningham. He strongly urges anyone with leadership tendencies to consider becoming an officer.

When it comes to becoming an officer, the 374 FSS Education Center offers information on a variety of commissioning programs. Some include scholarships or cross training the selected candidates into a specific career field, such as nursing or physician's assistant.  The Yokota Education Center is a go-to resource for all questions related to the commissioning process.

The application packages typically take six to eight months to complete. Some other steps are applicants must obtain an officer recommendation and write a personal statement for their package. A recommendation from the highest officer in your direct chain makes you more competitive. There are also various cut-off ages to consider which vary depending on the commissioning program. Generally, Airmen who are approaching their 30s will be affected. There are also minimum GPA requirements. Airmen can also apply to more than one program at a time, according to Jamerson.

Jamerson recommends Airmen attend a commissioning briefing as their first step in the process. The briefings, conducted every other month, educate participants on the process, options and expectations associated with commissioning. Master Sgt. Brad Claypool, 374 FSS career assistance advisor, organizes the briegings and is another great source for related questions, according to Jamerson. After the briefing, Jamerson recommends putting in some personal research before visiting the education center, where one can receive more guidance and begin the application process. The center is located on the 2nd floor of building 316. The next commissioning briefing is scheduled for April 12. Contact Claypool to register.  

For a list of commissioning programs and details, visit http://www.afoats.af.mil/afrotc/enlistedcomm/EnlistedCommissioning.asp

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