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Facing future recruitment and retention shortfalls, the U.S. Air Force is experimenting with a new approach, and Arkansas is one of its first targets.

The Air Force wants to collaborate with secondary schools and colleges near installations like Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville.

The partnerships would involve airmen visiting schools and students visiting bases. The aim is twofold: to increase interest in the Air Force among prospective recruits, and to show a commitment to local education, which is a key factor in current airmen deciding whether to move to new bases or retire, said Col. Chris Karns, director of public affairs for the Air Force's Air Mobility Command.

Karns was part of a group that met with Little Rock Air Force Base officials and local civic leaders last week to discuss partnership opportunities.

With the economy in a good place, private industry and the Air Force are recruiting from the same pool of people, and at a rapid pace.

"Competition is fierce with private industry, airlines, et cetera," Karns said last week. "We have to be more aggressive retaining and recruiting kids."

The program, which will spread to a variety of bases across the U.S., will focus on "STEAM," an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Air Force leaders hope to launch the "flying classroom" this spring with reserve officer training and civil air patrol students visiting the base to observe training exercises and fly in C-130s. The "flying classroom," officials hope, will expand to include a broader group of students in the future.

In the fall, Karns expects local airmen to begin visiting schools, particularly those attended by the children of airmen stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base to demonstrate a commitment to improving their educations.

Those visitors to schools will include members of the Air Force Band of Mid-America, mechanics, pilots and other airmen to showcase the broad array of available careers in the Air Force.

"It shows that the military is very dynamic," Karns said. "A student may say 'Wow, they have a band? What else do they have?'"

That's where the pilots, mechanics and other airmen will step in to explain.

For several years, Charles Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harding University in Searcy, has referred some of his students to the Air Force, and he immediately reached out to Karns after reading about the first "flying classroom" at March Air Reserve Base in California late last year.

For many of his engineering students, Wu said, the Air Force is a wonderful option.

"You can use your technical skills to serve your country," he said. "I think that's the most important thing, but you also are never worried about downsizing or job security like you may be in the private industry."

Wu also mentioned that military members can retire after 20 years with a range of benefits and still go on to work in the private sector.

In December, at March Air Reserve Base in California, Elinor Otto -- known as the last Rosie the Riveter -- and a group of students flew in a C-17 Globemaster. The Air Force hopes to find a similar historic figure in Arkansas to complement the new program.

Karns noted that these initiatives come at no additional cost to taxpayers because training missions are happening regardless. They're simply leveraging those missions to provide an educational benefit to the community, he added.

Air Force base gates "can be imposing to individuals," he said. "We want community members to see a place for themselves on the base."

SundayMonday on 02/19/2018

Print Headline: Initiative partners Air Force, schools

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