You Should Commission

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“Realistically, simply saying ‘you should commission’, whilst humbling, is largely ignorant of the fact that many enlisted personnel actually love (or really enjoy) what they do for a job which is why they joined that particular mustering in the first place”.

– WOFF Ken Robertson – Australian Air Command Warrant Officer

Have you ever been told that you should commission? As an enlisted soldier, sailor, or aviator, if you are a good operator, have great leadership skills and are a bit of a high-flyer, chances are that at some stage in your service, a well-meaning officer or someone within your reporting chain has complimented you by suggesting commissioning as a means of career enhancement. What does ‘you should commission’ even mean? Warrant Officer (WOFF) Ryan Wilson from the Australian Air Command Aviation Safety office maintains “Every time I have heard ‘you should commission’, what I really hear is you are a highly capable individual who can value-add to this organisation more if you commission”. It seems that for talented people, their talents would best serve the organisation if they were officers, particularly if they are tertiary educated.

Why is commissioning seen as the logical path for our talented people versus staying in the enlisted ranks and excelling in their chosen mustering? Historically, the boundary between officers and enlisted personnel was based on social classes where the nobles and aristocracy commanded the peasants. Whilst conflict has come a long way from noblemen leading peasants into battle, the distinction between officers and the enlisted workforce has followed a typical path. Societal hierarchies ensured the officers were commissioned from the privileged higher classes (the ruling class) and enlisted personnel were recruited from lower societal classes (the ordinary class). Associated with this, officers were afforded a higher socioeconomic status than enlisted personnel by virtue of their commission. Fast-forward to today, societal hierarchies are now more egalitarian and far less invasive in the commissioning and recruiting process, particularly in Australia however, it can still be argued that there remains an underlying socioeconomic status divide between officers and enlisted personnel. In the perspective that ‘you should commission,’ perhaps there is an unconscious bias from those well-meaning officers towards high-performing soldiers, sailors, and aviators; they are ‘too good’ for the enlisted workforce (under-valuing the enlisted workforce), and they would better serve the organisation as an officer instead of in the enlisted ranks. In this context, is the promotion and attraction of a commission more about attaining a higher socioeconomic status than anything else?

Ostensibly, for most personnel transitioning to commissioned ranks the answer is no, though there are some who view it as a means of gaining status or power. For the majority, becoming an officer is perceived to create more opportunities, principally in areas such as remuneration, education, and being able to influence real change within the organisation. I would argue these inferred commissioned opportunities are not a valid reason to jump ship from the enlisted ranks. Defence now provides a broad range of education opportunities for all ranks, and this significantly enhances enlisted ranks to drive change from the bottom up. Across the organisation, enlisted personnel have access to as many professional development opportunities as officers and I would argue that the ‘you should commission’ suggestions are no longer valid for the majority of enlisted personnel, particularly in aligned mustering/specialisations.

It may be evident that I am attempting to thwart those well-meaning officers from poaching our best and brightest enlisted personnel and it is at this point that I need to admit that I have a vested interest in developing our enlisted leaders. As a senior enlisted leader, I want our best and brightest to rise through the enlisted ranks and strive for the WOFF Tier B/C/D positions. To quote the Air Command WOFF: “We need [enlisted] ‘doers’ in the workplace who are at the ‘top of their game’ and not necessarily always at the junior officer level.” For Air Force, driving this is the Air Force Strategy (AFSTRAT) and it directs that “a fundamental responsibility is to develop air power strategists and practitioners [at all levels] who intimately understand the nuances of the strategic environment and can craft and deliver tailored responses for the joint force.” Where strategic acumen and thinking may have been the realm of the officer in years past, it is no longer the case, enlisted aviators are as much, if not more, professional masters of the air and space domain as their officer counterparts. This means that they have the same requirement for strategic acumen and thinking to deliver against the AFSTRAT requirement to “grow an intelligent, curious, skilled and strategically-aware workforce.” Air Force needs to value keeping our high-flyers within the enlisted ranks, and not automatically encourage their promotion to the commissioned ranks. In essence, the best outcome for Air Force and Defence is to shift the focus away from commissioning as a ‘must do’ for high performing personnel and instead reward our best and brightest with enhanced strategic opportunities within the organisation. Again, from the Air Command WOFF: “Removing talented personnel from the enlisted ranks doesn’t always equate to a better outcome either for the member or the organisation.”

There you have it, commissioning from the ranks as an impetus for bigger and better career outcomes is an increasingly irrelevant suggestion. The overt poaching of talented troops to the commissioned ranks no longer meets the needs of Air Force nor AFSTRAT. The professional opportunities that Defence today offers enlisted soldiers, sailors and aviators parallel those for officers, and these opportunities are increasing as the organisation “grows an intelligent, curious, skilled and strategically-aware workforce”. Organisationally, commissioning from the ranks is no longer the panacea for high-flyer career fulfilment, therefore it is probably time that we retire the ‘you should commission’ compliment regardless of how well-meant it may be. As the Air Command Aviation Safety WOFF succinctly suggests, “Imagine instead hearing, you are going to make an incredible WOFF one day!”

About the Author: David Turnbull is an Air Force Armament Technician and is the current Air and Space Power Centre Warrant Officer. David’s focus is the professional development and education of Air Force personnel, particularly enlisted aviators.

Cover Image Credit: LAC Stewart Gould, Defence Image Gallery