Career Intermission Program: A tool for flexibility and retention of talent

  • Published
  • By Capt. Emily Seaton
  • Twentieth Air Force

While the Career Intermission Program has been established since 2014, there has only been one missileer to utilize the program, Maj. Sandra Walker, an assistant director of operations for the 321st Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.

CIP is a Department of Defense program that allows service members to temporarily transfer to the Individual Ready Reserve for one to three years to meet personal or professional needs outside of the service and then return to active-duty status. Participants retain full medical and dental benefits for themselves and eligible dependents, can continue utilizing the Exchange and Commissary, and receive a monthly stipend of one-fifteenth of their basic pay.

Walker first learned about the program in 2015 from a guest speaker at the Twentieth Air Force Women’s Leadership Symposium. While not something Walker needed at the time, she tucked the knowledge away for possible future use.

Then in 2016, when her husband, who is an active-duty helicopter pilot, was selected for a unique opportunity to do an immersion with the German Air Force, Walker had to decide what her next step would be for her career and her family. All the locations that she would have been able to work at in Germany would have been several hours away from her husband’s location, and they were expecting their first child at the time.

Walker started looking at CIP as a possible solution. After research and months of family discussions about career impacts and other family impacts, they decided CIP offered an opportunity to be closer to her family that lives in Germany, she would be able to be more present in the early years of her daughter’s life, and her husband would be able to take this unique assignment.

Many tried to talk her out of it. She heard things like “out of sight out of mind” and “you are doing really well, why would you do that to your career?” Her response, “really all you are doing is delaying your retirement if you plan to stay in for 20 years. You control what type of caliber of Airman you want to be upon your return. I’d argue, that allowing people time to focus on their needs for a short period of time, will be advantageous to the Air Force and for the Airmen as a whole.”

One tip Walker shared about the process was, “know your timelines for promotion and professional military education; that applies to enlisted as well as officers. You need to have those conversations with your squadron commander, senior enlisted leader, or senior mentor…you can separate whenever you want, but you must recognize that when you come back your career hits play right away, consider where do you want to sit and where do you want to be at that time.”

In 2018, Walker separated. During her time in CIP, she focused on raising her daughter, had a more comfortable second pregnancy/postpartum experience and invested in personal growth: she did a lot of reading and running.

“The great thing about this program, you can separate for any reason,” explained Walker. “Some go work at Amazon, some spend time with ill family members, and numerous other reasons. For me, it was to support my husband’s opportunity and be closer to family while raising my daughter (eventually both daughters). Because of this opportunity, my husband and both daughters were able to learn how to speak German like me, something so invaluable.”

As for returning to active duty, the program is designed to set the member up for success. For Walker, the process started about 6-9 months before returning. Air Force Personnel Center started having conversations with her about where she would like to go (as an additional note, members are authorized travel and transportation allowances to one home of selection within the U.S., and from their home of selection to their follow-on assignment upon return to active duty), helped her get medically cleared again and started the process to renew her security clearance.

Upon Walker’s return to active duty in 2021, her husband was picked up for in-residence Intermediate Developmental Education at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and she started teaching at Squadron Officer School and later became Director of Operations for one of the student squadrons. Afterwards, the roles reversed; she was selected for Air Command and Staff College and her husband taught at SOS.

“Coming back on active duty was a lot easier than coming off of active duty,” Walker shared. “Coming off of active duty, I had to figure out who I was without the Air Force. Coming back to active duty, I knew exactly what was expected of me, I knew exactly what was going to happen…I knew what to wear, where to be, and how to show up. The hardest part was dropping off my kiddos…it was a culture shock and a language shock for them after our time in Germany.”

While it has been weird to watch her peers pin on lieutenant colonel and have to explain why she is still a major, her peers are now the ones in the positions to hire. She has no regrets about taking the time off and feels she has returned an even stronger Airman.

To those considering the program, Walker says, “it is a once-in-a-career opportunity to focus on yourself, to better yourself and focus on your priorities. You will gain new perspectives that will make you a better Airman upon your return. No one should hold this break in service against you, you should be proud of the opportunity the DoD provided you, because you will come back on active duty eager to serve, able to apply newfound skills and passions while paving a pathway for other Airmen and ultimately increasing retention across the force.”