Airman Magazine: Can you recall a specific time when you failed or took a calculated risk which ultimately propelled you forward, either personally or on a specific mission?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: When I graduated from pilot training, the law had changed to allow women in combat, but the Department of Defense policy did not allow women in combat. I graduated number one in my class, and there was an F-15E Strike Eagle, and I was told that if I selected it, I would be told no. I had a decision to make, and it was a calculated risk. I asked for the F15E Strike Eagle, and I was directed to make another selection, so I did. It wasn’t until a few months later that my assignment changed because the Department of Defense changed their policy to allowed women to fly fighters. Because they allowed women in combat, the Air Force allowed me to go to fighter training.
It doesn’t sound like it now, but at the time it was a big risk. A lot of people gave me advice that I should not ask for the fighter because I knew it was against DoD policy, but in my heart, I knew that policy was going to change and I just wanted it on record. It was a risk I’m happy I took.
AM: From being the first female pilot, you went on to become a fighter squadron commander and fighter wing commander. How important is the trust between pilots and maintainers? What is it like to walk up to a plane that has been maintained possibly by an Airman that is fresh out of high school and is now in charge of sustaining a very valuable asset?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: There’s a special bond of trust between a pilot and a maintainer. When the pilot goes out to the aircraft and accepts those forms, he or she knows that the maintenance professional has done everything required to ensure the aircraft is ready to fly. Age doesn’t matter; it’s the training. We train our maintenance professionals incredibly well, and I know when I walk out to my airplane that the maintainer has put his or her word on the fact that the airplane is ready to fly.
AM: You have seen different perspectives on dealing with aging air frames and equipment such as the F-15. What have you learned regarding the importance of having a strong and experienced maintainer force?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: When I started flying the F-15E in 1993, it was a fairly new platform. I’ve had the opportunity to fly it over the years, as recently as 2018. The actual frames are the same, but the aircraft has changed considerably. With avionics upgrades, the aircraft is so much more capable than it was when I first started flying it. Whether it’s introduction of GPS, fighter dead link or new radar systems, it is far more capable than when I started flying it and the great news is that we have an outstanding maintenance force that keeps the airplane at its optimum performance. That’s why the recruiting mission is so important; to ensure that we replenish our maintainer ranks.
AM: What role did Air Force Recruiting Services play in this effort to replenish the maintenance force? How did you approach the issue and how were you able to meet the demand on such a rapid time frame?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: We recently had an increase in requirement for maintainers, so we focused our recruiting efforts on that. In this case, we go to technical schools or different places where people are mechanically inclined, and we engage with that population. There’s a variety of techniques our recruiters use, so sometimes they will be at job fairs, sometimes they’ll go into classrooms and give presentations and talk about all of the incredible opportunities in the Air Force.
AM: How are assessments changing with the advancement of technology in our systems? For instance, in the maintainer field where there is a shift from requiring largely mechanical and electrical skills to increasing digital skills.
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: I think one of the most important things to do is to define the requirements. What skill sets do we need certain career fields to do? I think the best possible solution is if we are able to match that with increased granularity on those assessments. We need to update what those requirements are, and match people with those job sets.
AM: What is the Air Force’s process assessing the trade skills mindsets for each career field and then matching those to potential recruits? And how do you see this process evolving?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: We have a number of tests that we give our applicants and that gives us an idea of their aptitude. AFWIN is on Airforce.com. This doesn’t have the granularity envisioned by our leadership, but we know that’s what we’re working toward. Right now, it’s more of an aptitude and interest combination on how we match our applicants to career fields.
What we want to do is match people with the right skill sets and interest levels to the jobs where they will excel because if we have someone who enjoys what they do and is good at what they do, they’ll be happier and our retention will go up.
AM: Are there other initiatives AFRS is pursuing to improve talent assessment of potential recruits before they are accepted?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: AFRS is working with Air Education and Training Command, AFWERX and other organizations to see how we are able to assess human performance and human potential. What we would like to do is find the best possible match for an airman in a career field to ensure that they perform well and that they’re happy in their job.
AM: Do you think it’s fairly recent that we are trying to find specific Airmen for specific career fields? Was there ever a time where we were just trying to find Airmen to fill the slots and then find jobs for them? Was there ever a shift?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: We are trying to shift the paradigm right now. We have tests that people take like ASVAB and the Air Force work interest navigator. We don’t necessarily have the assessments to the level we want them where we can assess potential and what jobs that a certain person will be good at, but we do want to shift that paradigm where we find the absolute best match for each job. We’re not there yet, but that’s what we want to get to.
AM: Aside from the organizations that you mentioned earlier, can you speak on other technologies or avenues that are used to find the right recruits?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: We have a lot of efforts under way to capitalize on digital recruiting. I have a couple pockets up in South Dakota where the recruiters are really leaning forward when it comes to digital recruiting and being able to engage in a social media space.
One of the things we’re trying to do is engage and educate the American public. A recent survey has shown that a pool of 19 to 35-year-olds asked to name the four services within the Department of Defense – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines – only 50% could name the four, so the knowledge level in society is fairly low about the military. They know of us, but they don’t really know us.
The American society appreciates the service of its military members, but they don’t necessarily understand us or see themselves as joining our team. One of our big efforts is to engage with the American public and educate them on who we are and all of the opportunities that are available when they join our team.
AM: How do we compete with private tech companies to attract more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, talent for the Air Force? Do you feel like we’re competing with industry?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: When it comes to STEM, I think it’s really a matter of engaging with that demographic. Engaging with America’s youth who are interested in science and technology. We’re not really competing with industry because we’re different. We have a mission of preserving the security of this nation. It’s similar work, but with a different purpose and a different mission. We have a number of partnerships to help us engage with that demographic. For example, the Air Force is partnered with FIRST Robotics, and we’re able to engage with young men and women who are interested in science and technology. We tell them about all of the opportunities and what it means to be part of the Air Force team, so I don’t think were necessarily in competition with industry. I think it’s more like a partnership because we work together.
AM: Along with attracting STEM talent, how is the Air Force attempting to increase diversity in the force? And what benefits are derived from a growing diversity across the force?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: The way we increase diversity in the Air Force is by engaging with a diverse population. Diversity is important because I see it as a competitive advantage. Potential adversaries have very similar systems to what we have. How we’re going to win is with our people. Our people are our competitive advantage, so by having a diverse force, we have a better force. I’ve found this time and again. When I try to solve a problem, if I have people sitting around the table who think just like I do, I’m going to get to a solution pretty quickly, but it’s not going to be much different than if I had just sat down and thought about it myself. If I’m surrounded by people who have a different viewpoint, coming from different backgrounds, they will bring a different perspective. There’s diversity of thought in the room. It’s going to take longer to get to a solution, but I guarantee it will be a better solution because we will have looked at a problem from different perspectives. We would have thought about different contingencies and different second order effects. I truly see diversity as a competitive advantage and requirement for the Air Force to be the best that we can be.
To help improve diversity, one of the things we’ve done is stand up a detachment. We call them Detachment 1 within AFRS. One of their specific goals is to increase diversity, more specifically in rated career fields. When I’m saying rated career fields, I mean pilot, navigator, air battle manager and remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, pilot. Because what we see is that, overall, we have a certain level of diversity within our Air Force, but in the rated career fields, it’s significantly lower. We’re trying to increase engagement with the diverse demographic to attract people into the Air Force and specifically rated career fields.
AM: Has there been any changes to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, test to increase the speed and accuracy with which candidates are identified for career field needs?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: The ASVAB itself has not changed. It assesses the aptitude of our young men and women who take the test. What we have done is add additional tests to try to refine that assessment and better match our potential applicants to jobs in our Air Force.
The ASVAB score requirements are driven by the career field managers because they know what that job requires. It could change, like we talked about with maintenance, depending on the nature of the maintenance; however, the actual scores for entrance into the Air Force have not changed.
Total Force and the Future of Recruiting
AM: Where do you see AFRS heading in the future or within the next five years?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: Air Force recruiting is aggressively shifting to a total force recruiting construct. What we want to do is identify talent in society. Physical strength, moral strength, mental strength, grit, determination. Find those people and then find the best match in our Air Force. Whether that be full or part time, in or out of uniform. That includes active, guard, reserve, as well as officer, enlisted and civilian. In terms of the officer path, there’s the academy, there’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and there’s Officer Training School. What we want to do is recruit to the Air Force, not to a specific accession source. We are putting a lot of effort into coordinating with the other accession sources. We are currently bringing reserve and guard personnel into our headquarters. We are working closely with the academy and ROTC so that we have a coordinated message.
Right now, our message is sometimes confusing to the American public. If I’m thinking enlisted accessions and see another booth that is recruiting for the Air National Guard or for ROTC, it’s a confusing message to the American public that is not that familiar with the military. By working together and educating the public on the opportunities in the Air Force – not worrying about the specific accession path – we can be so much more effective and bring in so much more talent.
We try to funnel people who are interested to Airforce.com. From there, they can learn all about the different accession sources. We’re in the middle of updating it to make it look like the total force vision I just mentioned. People can go to Airforce.com and see all the opportunities that are available. It will have links to all of that to really show the total force picture.
AM: You knew you were taking a risk in picking the F-15E Strike Eagle, and a big thing about the Air Force right now is allowing our people to take those risks and giving them top cover in order to propel us forward. Do you encourage Airmen to take such risks nowadays?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: I encourage people to fail forward and I will cover their back. If they take a risk and it was for the right reason, even if it doesn’t turn out as expected, we can always course correct. I don’t want a team that is risk adverse and won’t try anything new. It’s when we try new things that we can get better, so I definitely encourage taking a smart risk.
AM: The chief master sergeant of the Air Force talks a lot about the frozen middle. He talks about how the top leaders like yourself are all about innovation, how the Airmen below have really great ideas for innovation, but sometimes, their ideas get stuck in the middle. How do you allow ideas to flow more freely in your organization?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: I think that innovation is very important and it’s hard to innovate within an organization, so I took an example from my boss and stood up an innovation cell outside of the normal construct, so I have the enterprise that does all things recruiting and outside that I have an innovation cell that is able to try new things and try different things and that way if it doesn’t work it doesn’t have a huge impact, but when it does work, we bring it over into the large recruiting enterprise. We then are able to force multiply with whatever that capability is. I keep it outside to protect it so that the organization doesn’t smother it.
One of the things that I’ve always loved to do is go out and talk directly to the Airmen. Sometimes when I travel, the recruiting office visits are set up, but I like to just show up any time. When I’m on the road, if I see a recruiting office, I’ll just stop by. What’s nice is that being able to talk to the recruiters directly and hear from them, they’re able to tell me any of their challenges – any of their ideas. What I’ve found is recruiters tend to be very outspoken and willing to engage and willing to highlight ways that we can make their job easier, so I think that really helps in terms of not letting the bureaucracy stop good ideas.
AM: Sounds like you have an amazing team.
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: You should join our team. Recruiting is an awesome mission. Our mission is to inspire, engage and recruit the next generation of Airmen, so now that we’re taking volunteers, keep us in mind. I’m recruiting the recruiters.
AM: You’ve broken a barrier by being the first female fighter pilot. What was it like to train the actor whose character also embodies breaking barriers?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: I had the opportunity to work with Brie Larson and the Captain Marvel team as they were producing the movie. It was a great opportunity. I appreciated how interested they were in getting the character right and getting the details accurate. Brie came out and spent a lot of time with me and with our aviators to learn about what it was like to be a fighter pilot. She paid a lot of attention to other details in terms of how do you climb up the ladder, how do you sit in the cockpit and how do you move when you’re flying in the airplane? Then we put her up in an F16. I had one of our female pilots fly her in the back seat so she could experience what it was like to actually be in a fighter aircraft, and I think that was very valuable as she developed her character for Captain Marvel.
AM: Why is it important to have an accurate representation of the military in media? How would being presented the right way help the Air Force?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: Our society has a fairly low knowledge level of the military. Recent polls have shown that 17 percent of Americans have a parent or close relative who actually serves in the military. As a result, a large segment of society has no first-hand knowledge and if you don’t know someone in the military, then your basis for information is pretty much the media and Hollywood movies. That’s why I think it’s important that Hollywood be accurate in their portrayal. There’s no requirement. They don’t have to be accurate, so I really respected that the Captain Marvel team wanted to be accurate and have a portrayal that represents what it’s like to be a pilot in the Air Force.
The movie and Larson’s character have the potential to be an inspiration to young people in America. We hope that it shows young people they can join our Air Force and be a part of our team.
AM: In what ways do storylines like Captain Marvel exemplify the Air Force?
Brig. Gen. Leavitt: In Air Force Recruiting Service, I often get asked who we are looking for to join our team. I think it’s great to see a strong character like Captain Marvel represent the Air Force. We’re always looking for people with physical strength, moral strength, mental strength, with grit and determination to join our team. Physical strength is pretty straightforward. For moral strength, it’s really that inner moral compass that guides you in your behavior. Mental strength is the ability to think critically, collaboratively, creatively. We need people who can think about a problem and come up with solutions in a very dynamic environment, and then grit and determination are core to who we are. We want people who will not give up.