Sharp Focus on Air Force Civilians

Feb. 1, 2006

Over the past three decades, Roger M. Blanchard, the Air Force’s civilian personnel chief, has seen lots of changes in how the service manages its employees, but he believes the recent changes have been the most important. Senior Air Force leaders, he said, have finally embraced the service’s 150,000 civilian workers as part of the Total Air Force.

The leadership now understands “civilian elements of the force provide tremendous wealth and expertise,” said Blanchard. “The Global War on Terrorism has sharpened everybody’s focus about how we can use all of our assets to be successful.”

Those 150,000 civilian employees, whose jobs range from repairing jet engines to managing complicated information systems, usually have taken a backseat to uniformed Air Force personnel. Civilians often have received less training than their uniformed active duty counterparts, have more frequently been targeted for force reductions, and have worked under a rigid personnel system.

Things now are beginning to change—and sometimes radically.

The Air Force is putting the finishing touches on its first comprehensive civilian force development training program. The Pentagon has called for turning thousands of military jobs over to civilians, rather than simply outsourcing them to the private sector. By February, the Defense Department likely will have abolished its archaic civil service personnel system in favor of new rules that promote pay for performance.

“The need to win and fight the Global War on Terrorism has caused all the services to sit up and take notice of their civilian workforces,” Blanchard said.

A Military Model

In 2002, the Air Force announced a new initiative that changes and better coordinates how the service trains, educates, and assigns its active duty personnel. Under this leadership and force development effort, all military personnel will receive tactical, operational, and strategic training throughout their careers to prepare them for leadership positions. Air Force leaders say their underlying goal is to guarantee personnel are in the right jobs, with the right skills. (See “Force Development Hits Its Stride,” October 2005, p. 66.)

Initially, force development efforts focused on military personnel, but last spring efforts were expanded to the Air Force civilian workforce as well.

“This is a big change in Air Force civilian career management. We’ve realigned civilian management to provide a systematic approach to developing and sustaining the civilian workforce,” said Gregory W. Den Herder, executive director of the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex., in announcing the change.

Blanchard said Air Force civilians have always had a variety of training options, depending on their jobs. But, he said, force development provides a “more systematic and deliberate” system for ensuring employees have the right skills for their current jobs and are also being groomed for future leadership positions.

Within the next six months, the Air Force will assign all civilians to one of 21 different career management fields, such as program management, contracting, scientists and engineers, financial management, public affairs, logistics, or services. This will make civilian organization similar to military specialties. Those fields will outline career paths that will allow employees to determine where they should work and what must be done to advance in their careers.

In each career field, civilian workers will be put through tactical, operational, and strategic training programs. For example, an entry-level personnel employee would first receive tactical training that offers an overview of how the service organizes its personnel. At midcareer, the employee would receive operational training about how personnel interface with various service organizations, and, if the employee sought a senior leadership post, he or she would receive strategic training highlighting how personnel decisions affect combat operations and wartime budgets.

The foundations of the new program were “already in place within our civilian career program directorate,” Den Herder said. “Now we’ve tied development, analysis, and employment together.”

As part of their training, employees also would be encouraged to pursue advanced academic degrees from military schools as well as from private and public institutions. For example, senior employees might go to the Air War College, where they would gain a broad perspective on how air operations are executed.

Blanchard believes the changes will make it easier for the Air Force to develop a cadre of future civilian leaders.

“If you want to compete for senior level positions, you will know what you have to do,” he said. “In the past, that was left too much in the hands of employees to figure out for themselves.”

The Air Force has always had personnel who could figure out how to develop themselves professionally, but officials want the burden for development on the institution—not the employees.

Changing Workforce

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Air Force has maintained a civilian workforce of about 150,000 employees without any major changes through downsizings or hiring sprees. Air Force officials also expect the civilian workforce to remain about the same size for the foreseeable future. However, the work civilians do will change.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has made shedding nonmilitary jobs from the uniformed ranks a top priority. He argues that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are needed for combat duties and should not be doing administrative or support jobs that can be handled by civilian defense workers or contractors.

The Pentagon believes as many as 320,000 support jobs could eventually leave the uniformed ranks, but thus far has plans for converting only about 10,000 jobs annually.

“If it is a military requirement, then the military will do it—if not, then you definitely want civilians doing it,” said Blanchard. Between 2006 and 2008, the Air Force will convert 2,029 military positions to civilian defense jobs, service budget documents show.

Blanchard said obvious candidate positions for the military-to-civilian transition are support jobs, such as financial management, public affairs, and personnel management positions. (Some support jobs will have to be kept as military positions, to provide slots for active duty personnel when they are not deployed.)

Additionally, Blanchard predicted that the Air Force could gain some new civilian jobs in its acquisition ranks to increase oversight of its contractors. The Air Force was rocked by a procurement scandal in 2004 when a top service acquisition official admitted to illegally favoring Boeing for contracts. Since then, several reviews have suggested the Defense Department step up its acquisition oversight.

Civilian job gains likely will be offset by the Pentagon’s push to allow the private sector to compete against federal civilian workers for their jobs. Since 2000, the Air Force has competed 18,875 positions, with contractors beating civilians about 60 percent of the time—winning 11,372 jobs. The Pentagon says several billion dollars has been saved through the competitions, because workers are forced to find cheaper and more efficient ways to do their jobs.

“Contractors are a big part of our present and will be a big part of our future,” Blanchard said.

The Air Force has held fewer job competitions in recent years because the Bush Administration has been streamlining rules governing the competitions. With those new rules now in place, the service likely will pick up the pace of competitions.

Among the probable candidates for competition are: air and motor transport services; maintenance work for military family housing; housing management; aircraft maintenance and repair work; and information technology jobs.

Another factor that could impact civilian jobs is the military’s ongoing Base Realignment and Closure process.

Several Air Force facilities are expected to be closed over the next five years, and several Air National Guard bases will be consolidated. Civilian workers at those bases are given priority for getting jobs at other military bases, and early retirement bonuses could be offered. Blanchard said the service would “do its best” to avoid any layoffs, but added it was too early to tell if any are necessary.

Meanwhile, a cadre of younger workers will have to be hired to replace an aging workforce, even if overall jobs are lost due to competitions and BRAC. The average Air Force civilian is 46 years old, and many will be eligible for early retirement at age 50.

“It’s something we have to anticipate,” said Blanchard.

Blanchard said the Air Force must not only come up with ways to develop younger workers but attract mid-career professionals and retired military personnel to government work, as well. Also, he said, to avoid a brain drain, the service must “transfer the knowledge” of retiring workers to the civilian employees replacing them.

System in Turmoil

Blanchard said attracting new workers requires overhauling the Pentagon’s civilian personnel system. He said a series of proposed reforms, which will affect all aspects of jobs—from how much employees are paid to how easily they can be fired—are “critically important” to the Defense Department’s future. And, he added, chances to make such changes to personnel rules come along only once every generation.

Those reforms, collectively known as the National Security Personnel System and outlined in the 2004 defense authorization act, will for the first time link employee performance to pay, scrap the archaic General Schedule (GS) pay tables in favor of a more flexible salary structure, and streamline labor relations rules. (See “New Day for Defense Civilians,” February 2005, p. 75.)

NSPS would eventually cover 700,000 defense civilians, but will be phased in gradually. Personnel experts also expect it could become a model for eventually overhauling personnel rules for the entire federal workforce.

The Pentagon’s existing system and rules have long been criticized for making it hard to reward top employees, fire bad ones, and attract qualified workers from the private sector to work for the Defense Department.

“To transform the way DOD achieves its mission, it must transform the way it leads and manages its people who develop, acquire, and maintain our nation’s defense capability,” said Gordon R. England, deputy secretary of defense, who serves as the Pentagon’s point man for NSPS. “Our civilian workforce is critical to the department’s success, and NSPS will provide a modern, flexible system to better support them.”

For example, under NSPS Air Force civilian contracting officers would not only be expected to write and process dozens of contracts and procurement orders annually, the employees would be judged and paid based on how well those contracts were written—and if they held contractors accountable.

Uncertain Timetable

NSPS implementation has been delayed several times, with the date currently expected to be April 30.

Labor unions filed a lawsuit in federal court to halt some of the proposed labor relations reforms, claiming labor unions were not adequately consulted. In particular, labor unions are upset about a provision that would allow senior Defense Department officials to override collective bargaining agreements based on national security grounds.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal labor union, has charged “no meaningful consultation” occurred between labor unions and the Defense Department in crafting the rules.

Gage told the online Web site that, “instead of working with the long-standing representatives of the military’s loyal civilian employees, the Pentagon apparently would rather duke this out in federal court.”

The Pentagon was “extremely collaborative” in writing the new personnel rules, England countered in a prepared statement last fall. “Frankly, whoever could help us has been consulted.”

A federal court judge was slated to rule on the union’s concerns in late January.

Despite the delay, Blanchard said, the Air Force is taking steps toward implementing the new personnel system, including training personnel managers on how to use it and notifying the first wave of workers who are to be covered.

The service’s salaried employees will be the first to move to the system, followed by wage workers and employees already covered by special pay rules.

Blanchard said the Defense Department could implement NSPS piecemeal without the labor regulations, but that would significantly weaken the reforms. He said NSPS was developed as a single system and removing any provisions would be like “taking a tire off a car.”

The Defense Department currently is only permitted to move 300,000 civilians to NSPS by 2008. Moving the remainder of the workforce would require Congress to pass additional legislation.

Air Force civilians have been unfazed by the debate over NSPS, the threat of outsourcing, and criticisms leveled at them as a result of the procurement scandal. Civilians know that there will be “ups and downs,” Blanchard said, but most “also know they are contributing to making this the greatest Air Force in the world.”

George Cahlink is a Congressional correspondent for Defense Daily newsletter in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Leaner, Meaner Depots,” appeared in the January issue.