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Virtual Commanders Summit addresses Oklahoma installations’ top concerns

A photo of military commanders from across Oklahoma and representatives from several state agencies.

Military commanders from across Oklahoma and representatives from several state agencies gathered virtually Nov. 5 to collaborate on common issues affecting their installations and workforce. The annual summit, scheduled to be held at Fort Sill, was moved online as a COVID-19 safety precaution.

A contingent of Oklahoma commanders, senior enlisted advisors and aerospace stakeholders has a broader view of issues impacting the state’s military installations after meeting virtually Nov. 5 for the Oklahoma Commanders Summit, hosted by the Air Force Sustainment Center.

The third annual summit provided a forum for Oklahoma commanders, command chiefs, state agency representatives, congressional staffers, and the Department of Defense liaison to discuss and educate each other on topics ranging from military healthcare to airspace protections. Army, Navy, Air Force, both active-duty and National Guard, were invited to participate.

“It’s an opportunity to align our strategic communications across the services and across the state and present a coordinated military voice on the matters that are demanding our attention,” said AFSC Commander Lt. Gen. Gene Kirkland.

After each summit convenes, facilitators provide an executive summary of the event to the governor and key state leadership informing them of the issues affecting Oklahoma’s military families and civilian workforce.

Recruiting engineers, a skilled maintenance workforce and flight simulator instructors is a current concern of many of the attendees.

“Those instructors are pilots and with the pilot shortage, it’s going to be tougher to get sim instructors,” said Col Matthew Leard, commander of the 97th Air Mobility Wing, Altus AFB, Okla. “Somewhere between 70-80 percent of the training we do here is on the simulator side, so if there was a way to incentivize that, I think it would be good.”

Col Timothy Danielson, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance AFB, Okla., agreed. His wing is 70-75 percent manned on civilian sim instructors. “Although the numbers are going up due to the [COVID-19] airline crisis, we don’t anticipate that lasting forever so any incentives for them would be a benefit.”

Currently, retired military members must wait six months before becoming employed as a Department of Defense civilian. Many accept jobs in industry or relocate to go to work sooner. Attendees discussed the challenges in attracting and hiring qualified retirees skilled in needed areas for jobs in the GS-13 and below pay scale because of the 180-day waiting period requirement. Proposed language in the pending Fiscal Year 21 National Defense Authorization Act speaks to allowing a waiver for this 180-day requirement in certain situations.

Another tool that could bolster the workforce, especially highly sought-after software engineers, is an effective tax credit for engineers. Senate Bill 1461, which provided for an engineer tax credit, was a 2020 legislative proposal that did not proceed.

“Oklahoma needs to amplify how attractive they are, not just at the military installations and not just in the depots, but to grow aerospace and industry to become the dominant force in Oklahoma,” said Col. Paul Filcek, commander, 72nd Air Base Wing, Tinker AFB.

The Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, retired Brig. Gen. Ben Robinson, said the number one initiative on the Strategic and Military Planning Commission is workforce. In addition to providing transition assistance to military retirees, they work with CareerTech who is educating students in computer science and software engineering.

Military spouse employment is also receiving their attention. “We see this as a retention issue,” Robinson said. “We want to make sure being a military spouse is an advantage, not a disadvantage, when it comes to employment.”

State legislation passed in 2020 eased the path toward employment for some military spouses. Senate Bill 1125, which provides for Oklahoma certification of teachers with out-of-state certificates, was signed into law May 18. It was a topic at a previous commander’s summit.

Another previous topic revisited at the summit was protecting airspace used for military training and operations. Legislation is in place that requires wind energy companies to get approval through both DOD and the Federal Aviation Administration before they can move forward with construction. The Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission is also conducting a statewide land use study to map out all airspace important to the military.

“This goes hand-in-hand with legislation,” said Grayson Ardies, OAC director. “We want to make sure the airspace is identified so that whatever private development might be occurring, whether that is a tall structure such as a cell phone tower or whether that’s wind energy, early communication can occur between the military and the developer so that we can prevent any issues.”

The study, called the Oklahoma Military Airspace Compatibility Assessment Mapping Portal, will continue through 2021.

The summit, originally scheduled to be held at Fort Sill, was held via video conference as a COVID-19 precaution. Attendees included representatives from Tinker Air Force Base, FIRES Center of Excellence and Fort Sill, Army National Guard, Altus Air Force Base, McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, Vance Air Force Base, Office of U. S. Senator Jim Inhofe, Office of U.S. Senator James Lankford, Office of U.S. Representative Tom Cole, Office of U.S. Representative Kendra Horn, the Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, Oklahoma Department of Commerce, Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, and the Defense-State Liaison Office.