Journal of Military Learning

U.S. Air Force Military Training Instructor and Instructor Trainer Competencies

Training the Instructors of the Next Generation of Airmen

Laura Barron, PhD

Lt. Col. James Young, PhD, U.S. Air Force

Mark Rose, PhD

James Johnson, PhD

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All U.S. Air Force enlistees, regardless of background or career field assignment, begin their careers in Basic Military Training (BMT), an intense 8.5 week acculturation into the Air Force. During this period each group of forty to sixty new enlistees is led by a military training instructor (MTI) (termed “drill sergeant” or “recruit division commander” by other services) who oversees their activities sixteen hours per day in events covering topics such as Air Force core values, military drill, dorm set-up, weapons, and physical training. Although MTIs are experienced NCOs accomplished in a technical career field specialty, they typically enter BMT without experience as teachers or instructors. As such, the development of the new enlistees they supervise is dependent on how MTIs themselves have been trained in beginning their MTI assignment. The current study provides a job analysis of the competencies identified as important for MTI trainers. Because MTI trainers are competitively selected from among a pool of experienced MTIs to train future MTIs, we also present results comparing those competencies identified as important in the role of MTI trainer (training other NCOs to become MTIs) to those of MTIs (directly instructing new enlistees).


The United States Air Force charges just over five hundred military training instructors (MTIs) with the monumental task of training approximately thirty-eight thousand enlisted trainees annually, transforming civilians into productive military members at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. These trainees come from diverse backgrounds and arrive at Basic Military Training (BMT) with differing types of motivation and levels of understanding of what they have volunteered for. The job of the MTI is to effectively engage, motivate, and train these recruits in 8.5 short weeks for their follow-on technical school training. The MTIs are noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from a variety of occupational specialties across the Air Force (e.g., aircraft maintainers, security forces, personnel administrators, etc.) and require nomination by their commander for the job of MTI. These individuals compete in a rigorous selection process for service members who will be expected to work in a highly fluid and challenging environment.1 This necessitates a high degree of classroom instruction and on-the-job training with an experienced MTI trainer.

The current study examines the job roles and requirements of MTI trainers—prior MTI service members now tasked with preparing and training other NCOs to effectively lead and direct newly enlisted BMT trainees. First described is the integral role MTI trainers play in preparing newly assigned MTIs as competent instructors for incoming Air Force trainees and the current processes used for training and developing MTIs and selecting MTI trainers. Next, we present the results of two independent surveys in which experienced MTIs and MTI trainers rated the relative importance of a common set of behavioral competencies for MTIs and MTI trainers. Finally, we present results from focus groups tasked with further developing a unique competency model for MTI trainers with the goal of better distinguishing how to best draw from the pool of experienced MTIs to select MTI trainers. Similarities and differences between the behavioral competencies required for successful MTI versus MTI trainer performance are summarized, and implications for MTI trainer selection are discussed.

Role of MTI Trainers in Developing MTIs and Establishing BMT Culture

Upon selection into the MTI program, the Air Force brings accomplished NCOs to BMT for 7.5 weeks of formal classroom instruction at the Military Training Instructor School (MTIS) followed by twelve weeks of on-the-job training assigned under an MTI trainer. MTIS instructors ensure soon-to-be MTIs have a basic understanding of BMT policies and procedures. Following completion of classroom instruction, MTI trainers pick up where the MTIS instructor left off, providing a shadowing, on-the-job training experience that allows the student to learn training concepts alongside an experienced former MTI. In addition to learning required MTI technical skills, MTI students also take classes on topics including leadership, stress and learning, and risks associated with highly power-imbalanced positions. MTI students also receive in-depth course instruction on stress management, sleep hygiene, and mindfulness to maintain resilience throughout their tour as an MTI.

MTI trainers in the 737th Training Group establish the standard of training for all MTIs in the Air Force. As such, it is critical MTI trainers are capable of and motivated to inculcate the proper training style and philosophy into their students. Because there is a high probability that the training methods an MTI utilizes will closely reflect those of his or her trainer, it is critical that the 737th Training Group selects MTI trainers who possess (or are capable of developing) the competencies required to produce and develop the next generation of MTIs. While MTI trainers are sourced from a candidate pool of experienced MTIs, differences exist in the competencies necessary for successful performance in these two job roles.

Job Analyses of MTIs and Relevance for Identifying Effective MTI Trainers

Although there exist several rigorous job analyses of military instructor duty, to our knowledge no job analysis exists regarding the competencies or characteristics that make NCOs effective in training and mentoring other NCOs to become instructors.2 Some may expect that to train other NCOs to be effective MTIs, one would only need to be an effective MTI. However, there are several examples where competent, successful employees are ineffective at training others on the same job.3 While technical knowledge and skills are important components of trainer excellence, without possession of additional skills, there is no guarantee that technical experts will successfully transfer their expertise to others.4 Job analyses of civilian training professionals and research on characteristics of exemplary trainers in business and industry make clear this responsibility entails an additional skill set apart from being a subject-matter expert (SME) alone.5 Competencies identified as critical to success in training others include showing interest in individual trainees, interacting with others to build confidence and trust, engaging others to maximize their strengths, and having knowledge of effective training strategies.6

While both MTIs and MTI trainers instruct and train others, the audience and context differ considerably. That is, the MTI and MTI trainer roles differ on a number of important required competencies, some which may result in effective MTI performance but less effective performance as an MTI trainer. First, MTIs lead a flight (a basic U.S. Air Force unit) of forty to sixty trainees and work with trainees in a group setting, while MTI trainers typically work one-on-one with their students. As such, MTI trainers are often required to tailor training approaches to complement each of their students’ individual learning styles and motivations, while MTIs are more likely to utilize training techniques that maximize effectiveness across an entire flight. Second, MTIs instruct new enlistees—likely experiencing the military for the first time—who are typically young, impressionable, and potentially vulnerable. These individuals lack or have only a basic understanding of military culture, which requires MTIs to focus instruction on fundamental knowledge and basic expectations. In contrast, MTI trainers work with experienced peer NCOs already well accomplished in their own military technical specialties who, in some cases, even outrank their MTI trainers. As a result, communicating a certain level of humility and being able to verbalize one’s own limitations to a peer are vital for the MTI trainer in a way that it is not when working with subordinates with far less prior experience. Finally, while MTIs are responsible for training others to internalize basic military knowledge and expectations, MTI trainers are responsible for training others how to teach, requiring an additional layer of knowledge and skills than might be expected of an MTI.

Current MTI Trainer Selection Process

The existing MTI trainer selection process consists of senior leaders from MTI training squadrons nominating current MTIs they believe would be capable trainers. MTI trainer candidates meet a board of four to five panel members, typically consisting of senior enlisted leaders from the group and the trainer squadron, the training director, and a psychologist from the Military Training Consult Service. While existing selection processes have produced competent trainers (i.e., few issues with trainers struggling with their duties), developing a robust selection process built upon the foundation of a formal job analysis might better serve the organization in further identifying more capable MTI trainers.

Comparison of Common Behavioral Competencies between MTIs and MTI Trainers

Because MTI trainers are sourced from a pool of experienced MTIs, an initial step in identifying MTI trainer competencies is determining the adequacy of existing MTI competency models as applied to MTI trainers.7 Although prior job analysis has identified important general attributes (e.g., honesty, dependability, adaptability, etc.) expected of MTIs, in developing specific screening criteria for MTIs, we sought to identify more observable behavioral competencies corresponding to the broader attributes identified previously as important for safe and effective MTI performance.8 Having these more observable behavioral competencies also allows for documentation of differences in the required competencies for the MTI trainer and MTI roles.

Overview. The current study compares the relative importance of forty-two behavioral competencies identified as potentially applicable to both MTI and MTI trainers. We first describe the process used to identify behavioral competencies of potential importance for MTIs based on previous job analysis. We then describe two independent surveys in which independent MTI and MTI trainer groups rated the importance of those behavioral competencies for MTIs (Survey 1) or MTI trainers (Survey 2). Finally, we compare the results of the two surveys and describe the results of iterative focus-group sessions to further refine and distinguish the unique competencies required for MTI trainers.

Initial identification of behavioral competencies for MTIs. Potential relevant behavioral competencies for MTIs were identified to correspond to critical domains identified in an earlier job analysis of attributes relevant to safe and effective MTI performance: conscientiousness/work dedication, integrity, judgment/self-control, intelligence/decision-making, leadership, adaptability, interpersonal abilities, and communication.9 These proposed behavioral competencies were themselves drawn from a larger set of behavioral competencies identified as important within the Air Force across many career fields.10

Survey 1: MTI importance ratings. A total of 434 current and former MTIs assigned to the 737th Training Group as MTI supervisors or MTIS instructors were requested to complete an online survey to identify competencies critical to MTIs. The email survey link directed MTIs to complete one of two randomly assigned survey versions. To minimize survey time completion and increase SME participation, MTI competency item content was divided between the two versions, such that half of MTIs (randomly assigned) were asked to rate the first half of the competency list, and the other half were asked to rate the second half of the competency list. On the survey, MTIs rated the importance of each performance competency on a 4-point scale: 0 = Not Important for MTIs, 1 = Low Importance for MTIs, 2 = Medium Importance for MTIs, 3 = High Importance for MTIs. Of those invited to participate, 124 MTIs completed the survey and an additional thirty-one completed a portion of the survey (overall response rate: 35.25%). With slight differences in the response rate, half of the items were rated by fifty-four to fifty-five MTIs while the other half of items were rated by sixty-eight to sixty-nine MTIs. By rank, survey participants included fifty-nine staff sergeants (40.14%), sixty-four technical sergeants (43.54%), seventeen master sergeants (11.56%), and five senior master sergeants (3.40%). Females represented approximately 11% of respondents.

Survey 2: MTI trainer importance ratings and focus group input. In order to better capture the full range of competencies potentially relevant for MTI trainers, an independent sample of SMEs rated the importance of a common list of forty-two behavioral competencies identified in Survey 1 and twenty-two additional behavioral competencies identified through reviews of O*NET worker characteristics for “11-3131.00 - Training and Development Managers,” U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) multipurpose competencies, and previous Air Force surveys.11


Ratings of behavioral competencies needed for MTI trainers were made by a total of nineteen participants in a series of three focus group sessions in May 2016 (five to seven per focus group session). The nineteen MTI trainer SMEs included fourteen incumbents and five supervisors. The three separate focus groups included (a) current MTI trainers, (b) former MTI trainers (including those currently serving within the 737th Training Group in roles such as MTI/standardization and evaluation, Airmen’s Week facilitators, military drill and ceremonies NCO, MTIS instructor, and protocol NCO), and (c) instructor supervisors and the MTI training superintendent. Participants were asked to rate their familiarity with the MTI trainer job (1 = Not Knowledgeable to 5 = Extremely Knowledgeable). Overall participant knowledge of the MTI trainer position was high (M = 4.50, SD = .837). By rank, survey participants included one staff sergeant (5.26%), eleven technical sergeants (57.89%), six master sergeants (31.58%), and one senior master sergeant (5.26%). Females represented approximately 47.37% of participants (nine of nineteen). All participants had a minimum of eighteen months of experience as an MTI; fifteen of nineteen participants (78.95%) had served as an MTI for thirty months of more. Overall 63.16% of the sample (twelve of nineteen) had at least twelve months of experience as an MTI trainer, and an additional 10.53% of the sample (two of nineteen) had six to eleven months of experience as an MTI trainer.

Competency importance (i.e., the level of importance that one would place on the attribute for performing MTI trainer responsibilities) was rated on the following scale: 1 = Not Important, 2 = Slightly Important, 3 = Important, 4 = Very Important, or 5 = Extremely Important. A “Do Not Know” option was also available for participants uncertain about the importance of a specific behavior. Interrater reliability (IRR) of behavioral competency importance ratings was first assessed within group, with focus group one (ICC = .825), two (ICC = .725), and three (ICC = .712) demonstrating adequate levels of within-group agreement. Additionally, pooled IRR between focus groups was also high (ICC = .895), indicating groups could be combined into a single pool of nineteen raters. Final IRR values across all nineteen raters indicated subject-matter experts had high levels agreement (ICC = .884), and that importance ratings could be averaged into a single mean score for each behavioral competency.

Comparison of MTI and MTI trainer competencies. The common forty-two behavioral competencies rated on importance for MTI trainers (Survey 2) and, separately, on importance for MTIs (Survey 1), were compared to one another to determine relative importance for MTI trainers as opposed to MTIs. MTI trainer ratings from Survey 2 were converted from a 1-5 scale (1 = Not Important to 5 = Extremely Important) to the 0-3 (0 = Not Important to 3 = High Importance) ratings scale used during the MTI job analysis. MTI trainer ratings of “5” and “4” (Extremely Important or Very Important) were rescaled as “3” (High Importance), while ratings of “3” (Important), “2” (Slightly Important), and “1” (Not Important) were rescaled as “2” (Medium Importance), “1” (Low Importance), and “0” (Not Important), respectively. Cohen’s d values were computed to determine the magnitude of differences in rater behavioral importance scores between the two occupations, with effect size values of .2, .5, and .8 corresponding to small, medium, and large mean differences, respectively.12


In total, importance ratings for twenty-seven out of forty-two behaviors (64.3%) had Cohen’s d values of .20 or greater, indicating higher importance ratings for MTI trainers than for MTIs (see table 1). The five behavioral competencies showing the greatest difference in terms of higher importance for MTI trainers relative to MTIs were:

  • Modifies leadership or interpersonal style to match audience and setting (d = .421)
  • Holds others to expectations and standards to help them meet goals (d = .401)
  • Leads others in a fair and consistent manner (d = .388)
  • Remains patient with subordinates when they make a mistake (d = .437)
  • Considers multiple sides of an issue and input from appropriate individuals when making decisions (d = .395)

Generally, the additional importance of these competencies for those who train other NCOs to become instructors as compared to those who instruct new recruits (basic military trainees) directly may be explained in terms of

  1. a focus on individualized attention and tailored instructional methods that is possible to a greater extent when working with MTIs one-on-one than when working with flights of over forty trainees (“Modifies leadership or interpersonal style to match audience …”);
  2. taking more of a helping role in working with more advanced learners who are more likely to be self-motivated and bring their own goals for learning (“Holds others to expectations … to help them meet goals”), rather than having to focus more efforts on drilling the goals of training into new recruits;
  3. approaching training of instructors with greater open-mindedness and recognition of multiple ways that different instructors can respond to a given situation to effectively teach students (“Considers multiple sides of an issue …”), as opposed to the need for generally projecting a more definitive, directive approach for drilling in new recruits black-and-white Air Force standards for training tasks that are more concrete (e.g., how to march in formation, how to accomplish a push-up, etc.); and
  4. exercising more patience (“Remains patient with subordinates when they make a mistake”) and according more respect and showing even greater attention to fair treatment (“Leads others in a fair and consistent manner”), consistent with the fact that MTI students, unlike new recruits who undergo BMT for the purpose of being indoctrinated or “blued” in Air Force ways, have already demonstrated themselves as high-performing members (having achieved the rank of E-6 or higher) over the course of their Air Force careers.

In contrast, one behavioral item (“Accepts responsibility for own actions, regardless of potential consequences”) was identified as being more important for MTIs than for MTI trainers, d = -.32. This is consistent with the fact that the impact of MTI trainers’ actions is more indirect than that of MTIs, such that MTI trainer actions do not affect BMT trainees directly, but have second-order effects in terms of how their actions affect MTIs who then in turn affect BMT trainees.


All behavioral competencies rated as highly important for MTIs were similarly rated as highly important for MTI trainers (average importance rating greater than or equal to 4.50). Two additional behavioral competencies not included in the MTI survey that were identified as highly important for MTI trainers (M ≥ 4.50) were “Works independently and accomplishes tasks without constant supervision” and “Takes personal responsibility for completing work tasks.” Although these behavioral competencies are also likely important for MTIs, MTIs are monitored and supervised more closely than MTI trainers, necessitating a higher level of self-sufficiency and initiative for MTI trainers. Although consensus was that most of the additional OPM, O*NET, and other competencies were important for MTI trainers, competencies related to creative or divergent thinking (e.g., “Develops creative ways to solve a problem”) were generally not rated as important (M ≤ 3.0), nor were competencies associated with (formal) oral presentations or writing (M ≤ 3.4). Table 2 displays the average importance ratings for MTI trainers for the full list of rated behavioral competencies (incorporating OPM, O*NET, and other competency additions).

Additional Focus Group Insights

The use of an iterative focus-group process allowed for additional insights on MTI trainer competencies and discussion of how the competencies required for successful performance as an MTI trainer differed from those important for MTIs. Qualitative input from two initial focus groups on behavioral competencies important for MTI trainers that were not captured on the initial lists were recorded and summarized. The additional behavioral competencies identified in the initial MTI trainer focus groups were then reviewed and validated in a second round of focus groups in which seventeen participants were asked if there were any competencies identified in the earlier focus group that should be removed (i.e., were not relevant to MTI trainer performance) or added. Eight vetted behavioral competencies were ultimately identified to include competencies focused on the domains of “communication,” “initiative,” “self-control/judgment,” and multiple competency behaviors focused on the domains “teaching others” and “adaptability”:

  • Adaptability: Demonstrates resilience in response to adversity
  • Adaptability: Displays awareness of one’s own limitations or weaknesses
  • Communication: Communicates clear, measurable performance standards for meeting training objectives
  • Initiative: Demonstrates an active commitment to self-improvement
  • Self-Control/Judgment: Projects a sense of humility
  • Teaching Others: Gives trainees the opportunity and latitude to succeed through their own trial and error where appropriate
  • Teaching Others: Adapts training styles and methods to the needs and style of the student
  • Teaching Others: Manages trainees’ unrealistic expectations when needed


Overall, results validated that most competencies important for MTI performance are also important for MTI trainer performance. However, results also suggest certain competencies may be particularly important for MTI trainers relative to MTIs. These findings highlight that tailoring or modifying one’s leadership or interpersonal style may be more impactful for MTI trainers given that they train their MTI students one-on-one rather than training a flight of forty to sixty trainees simultaneously. Additionally, a more open-minded, tolerant point of view (considering multiple sides of an issue, remaining patient with subordinates when they make a mistake) may be particularly critical as an MTI trainer given that they work with experienced student NCOs who have already proven themselves within the military rather than with new, inexperienced trainees who must be indoctrinated on basic military culture. Recognition of these differences creates an opportunity for the organization to modify its trainer selection process to find these capabilities among the pool of MTI trainer candidates. Additionally, these findings can enhance training efforts to reinforce or develop the competencies identified as most critical for MTI trainer performance.

Discussion in the focus group sessions also highlighted the importance of humility, awareness of one’s own limitations, and active commitment to self-improvement as important to a greater extent for MTI trainers than for MTIs. While these competencies may be important to MTIs to some extent, working with students closer in experience level may make recognition of one’s own weaknesses particularly important. While noting personal weaknesses with inexperienced trainees as an MTI may undermine necessary credibility in some instances, one-on-one mentoring of other NCOs to become MTIs may necessitate recognition of one’s own shortcomings, and encourage admission when one does not have “all the answers.”

While the present study focused on MTI and MTI trainers in the context of Air Force BMT, one would expect findings to provide good generalizability to initial military training across the other services. As such, those who make good drill sergeants or drill instructors in sister services may similarly require a distinct set of behavioral competencies as opposed to those who effectively teach the next generation of NCOs to become effective drill sergeants or drill instructors.


  1. Eric G. Carbone and Jeffrey A. Cigrang, “Job Satisfaction, Occupational Stress, and Personality Characteristics of Air Force Military Training Instructors,” Military Medicine 166 (2001): 800–2; Alan D. Ogle, Laura G Barron, and Anna Fedotova, “Job Analysis of United States Air Force Military Training Instructor Duty: Identification of Screening Criteria for Instructor Candidate Suitability,” Military Psychology 28 (2016): 50–63.
  2. Daniel Tanguay and Wendy Darr, Canadian Forces Instructor Attributes: A Job Analysis of the Instructor Position on Basic Courses, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis Technical Note (2011–2013); Heather M. Foran and Amy B. Adler, “Trainee Perceptions of Drill Sergeant Qualities during Basic Combat Training,” Military Psychology 25 (2013): 577–87; Ogle, Barron, and Fedotova, “Job Analysis of United States Air Force Military Training Instructor Duty,” 50–63.
  3. Steve Trautman and Kate Klein, “Ask an Expert,” Training and Development 48 (1993): 45–48; Saundra Wall Williams, “The Effectiveness of Subject Matter Experts as Technical Trainers,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 12 (2001): 91–97.
  4. James A. Leach, “Distinguishing Characteristics among Exemplary Trainers in Business and Industry,” Journal of Vocational and Technical Education 12 (1996): 7–16; S. D. Johnson and James A. Leach, “Using Expert Employees to Train on the Job,” Advances in Developing Human Resources 3 (2001): 425–34.
  5. Justin Arneson, William J. Rothwell, and Jennifer Naughton, ASTD Competency Study: The Training and Development Profession Redefined (Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press, 2013); Leach, “Distinguishing Characteristics Among Exemplary Trainers in Business and Industry,” 7–16.
  6. Justin Arneson, William J. Rothwell, and Jennifer Naughton, ASTD Competency Study; Johnson and Leach, “Using Expert Employees to Train on the Job,” 425–34.
  7. Ogle, Barron, and Fedotova, “Job Analysis of United States Air Force Military Training Instructor Duty,” 50–63.
  8. Ogle, Barron, and Fedotova, 50–63.
  9. Ogle, Barron, and Fedotova, 50–63.
  10. Elizabeth Lentz et al., Air Force Officership Survey Volume I: Survey Development and Analyses (Randolph AFB, TX: HQ AFPC/DSYX Strategic Research and Assessment Branch, 2010).
  11. “Summary Report for: 11-3131.00 – Training and Development Managers,” O*NET OnLine, accessed 26 June 2018,; U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Multipurpose Occupational Systems Analysis Inventory: Closed-Ended (MOSAIC) Competencies (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2013), accessed 26 June 2018,
  12. Jacob Cohen, “Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioural Sciences (Revised edition),” New York 7 (1977).


Laura Barron, PhD, is chief of strategic research and assessment at Headquarters, Air Force Personnel Center. She holds a PhD and an MA in industrial-organizational psychology from Rice University. In 2013, she partnered with psychologists embedded within the Air Force basic military training to develop and validate the assessments currently used for screening and selecting Air Force military training instructors.

Lt. Col. James Young, PhD, U.S. Air Force, is a psychologist embedded within Air Force basic military training and is responsible for the selection, training, and sustainment of the military training instructor corps. Prior to this assignment, he was embedded within Air Force’s special operations community where he conducted similar activities for a variety of organizations. He holds a PhD in counseling psychology from the University of North Texas and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in human factors at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Mark Rose, PhD, is a senior personnel research psychologist at Headquarters, Air Force Personnel Center. He received his PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of South Florida in 1997. His role involves occupational needs analysis, test development, and serving as an advisor to Air Force leaders on selection and classification.

James F. Johnson, PhD, is a U.S. Air Force personnel research psychologist at Headquarters, Air Force Personnel Center. He received his PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of Oklahoma in 2014. His focus areas include enlisted and officer selection and classification, with particular interest in person-job fit.

October 2018