Four years ago, the Air Force launched a concerted, high-profile campaign to alleviate severe shortages in the Air Force’s science and engineering career field. Now, that workforce shows signs it is beginning to recover from a decade of problems and neglect.
The S&E community is having some success recruiting and retaining talent in an extremely tight and competitive labor market, officials say. As a result, staffing in the Air Force’s S&E field has improved from 85 percent of authorized strength to close to 95 percent today.
USAF must maintain a robust S&E community if it is to hold its warfighting edge and bring on the next generation of military technologies. Air Force labs have been the sources of many breakthroughs—navigation and timing systems, stealth technology, and airborne warning systems, to name a few. All got their start decades ago in USAF labs.
The S&E community, comprising 9,254 civilians and 3,885 uniformed personnel, still faces serious challenges. Chief among them is the danger of mass civilian retirements over the next decade as baby boomers leave the workforce.
Compounding the problem is a difficulty in finding new blood. Fewer and fewer American students are choosing careers in science and engineering.
Officials at the Air Force Research Laboratory (headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio) worry that its S&E force could suffer a catastrophic setback, numerically speaking, noted James Engle, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering. Retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Nielsen, who commanded AFRL until this summer, said that retirements have held steady in recent years but that 45 percent of the civilian S&E workforce is eligible to retire in the next five years.
Many studies, starting in the 1980s and continuing through the 2002 Aerospace Commission report, have raised an alarm about shortages in the nation’s scientific and technical workforce. In 2000, the Air Force Association released a special report on USAF research and development, cautioning that shortchanging the labs could cost the United States its next generation of military breakthroughs.
In the late 1990s, AFRL was not only losing authorizations but also losing budget, Nielsen said. He added that, even though scientists are optimists by nature, “it was hard for some of the people inside the lab and people looking for jobs to be optimistic about government service at the time.”
As the scale of the problem became widely known, USAF began to take action. In 2000, top leaders held the first of two four-star summits dedicated to S&E manning problems.
It continued in 2001, as incoming Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche brought with him from industry an understanding of the “importance of a technical workforce and a technical organization,” said Engle.
The Air Force initially focused its attention on retention problems among uniformed military engineers. This was Roche’s idea, Engle said. The Secretary had witnessed similar recruitment and retention woes while he was a top executive at Northrop Grumman.
His idea was to “re-recruit” each military engineer, Engle said, meaning that USAF officials would “talk to every one of them and ask, ‘What’s on your mind? What’s bothering you?’ ”
The Air Force sought an understanding of the engineers’ thinking and would ask what could be done to keep them happy, why were they planning to leave, and how they could be persuaded to stick with the Air Force.
“When we did that, we re-recruited a number that were on the bubble and thinking about leaving,” Engle recounted in an interview. “So, it was an effective effort.” It also yielded a huge amount of useful information as to what made the military engineers happy and unhappy.
The re-recruitment effort will probably be repeated, he noted.
Engle added that retaining uniformed personnel has been “the really hard part” of the staffing problem. “At one point we were as low as 85 percent manned on the military engineer workforce,” said Engle, but staffing has since recovered to between 90 and 95 percent.
Among military engineers with seven to 13 years of experience, undermanning was a particularly serious problem, with no quick and easy solution.
“We have a retention problem on the military side,” Engle said. “I can’t hire an eight-year captain engineer. I have to hire a lieutenant and grow him into that position.”
In the Air Force’s civilian S&E community, the big problem is not recruitment. Engle noted that, on the civilian side, USAF can hire “across the whole demographic spectrum,” meaning that a position requiring 10 years of experience can be filled by recruiting an industry engineer with 10 years of experience. The problem, rather, is the danger of mass retirements that could gut the system.
Many civilians who are eligible for retirement are not retiring. Delayed retirements are certainly helpful in allowing the Air Force to meet its civilian S&E manning requirements, but they do not actually solve the problem. Engle noted that keeping an old workforce a while longer merely “kicks the can” down the road.
“Whether they leave when they’re 58 or leave when they are 62 or 65, they’ll leave,” Engle said.
Much of the hanging on is due to the state of the economy, he added, and Air Force S&E retention could turn down again when the economy turns hot. “We’re trying to get ready for that,” Engle said.
Steps taken by the service leadership have strengthened the Air Force’s prospects for meeting the future challenge, officials say. The 2000 and 2001 Air Force summits produced a concept of operations to bolster the S&E workforce. Also ordered up were a manning requirements review and a host of initiatives aimed at boosting retention and recruitment of scientists and engineers.
The manning requirement order asked, “How many [scientists and engineers] do you need?” and, “How many will you need in the future?” Engle said.
The resulting CONOPS emphasized the need for a strong in-house military and civilian S&E community with a specific distribution between military, civilian, and contractor personnel.
“We believe that … a certain number of our general officers need to be technically competent [and] we need to grow them out of this [S&E] cadre, … because we are a technical force and we’re going to become more so,” said Engle.
A year-long review showed that the S&E career field in 2000 was “the most stressed career field in the Air Force,” Engle said.
Using those data, officials designed a series of initiatives to bring manning up to 100 percent of requirement. Initiatives ranged from retention and recruitment bonuses to new programs for S&E career development.
At the second summit, proposed changes and initiatives were presented for approval by the senior leadership. The package would require $360 million to bring the S&E force up to full strength.
When Engle and his staff presented that tab, there was some heartburn, Engle said, but “the Chief and the Secretary got that money for us [and] funded every one of the initiatives.”
The funding boost first appeared in the Fiscal 2003 budget in the form of retention bonuses and “group retention” allowances. This year, full funding of the initiatives is in place.
The result? The Air Force is now 90 to 95 percent manned in these areas. Regarding staffing, said Engle, USAF still is “not where we wanted to be, but it’s a lot better than where we were. It’s working.”
Officials say it is difficult to forecast the shape of the future S&E workforce. A 20-year-long war on terrorism will drive a certain set of requirements at the Air Force labs. A focus on a “near-peer competitor,” Engle said, would produce a different set.
If the long-term enemy is terrorism, the Air Force is likely to seek larger numbers of electrical engineers and computer experts, Engle explained. Taking on a near-peer competitor might force USAF to focus on directed energy weapons and high-speed hypersonics programs. This would require a different set of experts.
Officials have intensively studied both scenarios and produced two different staffing requirements. “We’re shaping our force as we speak,” Engle said. “We’re reshaping as we speak.”
Increased funding has yielded benefits in other areas. Roughly 80 percent of the Air Force’s science and engineering program is executed by industry and academic institutions outside of USAF’s direct control.
Over the past five years, Nielsen said, the Air Force’s overall science and technology program—including funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or USAF product centers—has grown from about $2.4 billion to $3.4 billion annually.
The funding boost has spurred more cooperation with universities. “Having the overall workforce, including the contracted workforce, out there doing things [has] made the whole defense science and technology community more robust than it was in the past,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen noted the S&E community has enjoyed several years of funding stability and consistent personnel authorizations.
“In our authorizations now, we’ve been steady for about four or five years,” Nielsen explained, and so, as people retire, “we have headroom” to hire replacements.
Pay for Performance
New optimism has been generated by a successful, seven-year-old personnel program called the “Lab Demo.” It is a compensation system that rewards scientists and engineers for their contributions rather than their longevity. The lab’s scientists and engineers—about 60 percent of the AFRL workforce—participate in Lab Demo.
In contrast to the traditional civil service system, Lab Demo evaluates “contributions over the year, in the context of the goals of the lab,” Nielsen said. Performance determines “what kind of raises they will get and [what] promotions.”
The system has only four broad pay bands, compared to the multiple steps and grades of the traditional civil service system. Technical experts can move up to a higher band by performing well.
Lab Demo has been “really successful” in two directly opposed ways, Nielsen said. First, top workers can be rapidly rewarded through raises or increased responsibility. Conversely, poor performers can suffer pay cuts. AFRL has found it necessary to do this “a few times,” Nielsen said.
Polly Sweet, AFRL human resource management director, said that Lab Demo is now “pretty much institutionalized” within AFRL. This offers two benefits. First, as a retention tool, Lab Demo gives managers flexibility to set pay appropriately for a worker’s performance, which allows them to compete with private industry. Second, as a recruitment tool, it promises that hard work will be recognized and rewarded.
AFRL can offer a bonus of $10,000, immediately, to key engineers who might otherwise leave government service.
Engle noted that the Air Force is also “looking hard” at knowledge transfer, to ensure that expertise from senior civilian scientists and engineers gets passed down to the next generation.
“We’d like to hire about 120 additional people, put them in a very specific location, as an apprentice under a master, let them work with that person for the last three years of [the senior official’s] career,” Engle said. That way, the Air Force will have at least “post-doc’d” a replacement when the mentor retires.
|AFRL and the National Security Personnel System
Air Force Research Laboratory is pursuing a number of initiatives to improve recruiting and retention of its science and engineering workforce
These initiatives are taking place in the context of the Pentagon’s move to a new National Security Personnel System. NSPS could replicate, but alter, many of AFRL’s in-house programs. (NSPS is being designed for the entire DOD civilian workforce.)
The proposed new personnel system will probably contain a form of flexible, “pay banding” compensation. Pay banding is needed to bring military science and engineering salaries within competitive range of the private sector.
AFRL personnel manager Polly Sweet told Air Force Magazine that AFRL was one of nine DOD entities specifically excluded from NSPS until 2008.
Sweet said this arrangement allows AFRL to “continue to implement new, cutting-edge” personnel arrangements to address the Air Force’s S&E workforce concerns.
What happens after 2008 is unclear, but moving AFRL into the NSPS model would not necessarily hamper the labs, said Sweet.