Robert Daniels of the 551st Commodities Maintenance Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., drills holes for rivets while changing KC-135 spoiler ribs. The AIr Force had planned to hire 21,500 civilians in the coming year, but the service is greatly curtailing that plan, saying it now will hire only 4,000 new civilians. (Margo Wright / Air Force)
The Air Force is dramatically curtailing civilian hiring amid a budget crunch. The Air Force had earlier planned to fill 21,500 new civilian positions next year, but now it projects having funds to hire only 4,000 instead, said Bill Snodgrass, the Air Force's chief of manpower programming.
"We're trying to sustain a nation at war, we're trying to take care of our troops and their families at the same time we're trying to invest in new capabilities," Snodgrass said.
And all of this, he said, is happening at a time when the Defense budget is tightening.
Other agencies are in the same boat. The Social Security Administration, Justice Department, the Smithsonian Institution and the State Department are also curtailing hiring plans because they expect future budgets to stay flat or even decrease.
Starting this month, the Air Force is hiring only one person for every two civilian vacancies it has. Civilian employees who were notified that they would be hired before the policy was put in place will still have a job. Those who apply for jobs subject to hiring controls will be told whether that job has been closed.
Snodgrass said the hiring controls will buy the service some time to review its core functions and missions and prioritize which civilian positions should be filled.
"In a perfect world, we'd probably take a couple of years to study this problem, but we don't have a couple of years," he said. "The reductions are effective [in fiscal 2012]. We don't want to do something hastily that has unintended consequences."
Snodgrass projected that the Air Force could come up with a solution by early fall.
Some special consideration will be given to areas such as acquisition, joint basing, some intelligence areas and combatant command support, he said.
The challenge will be to manage with fewer civilian employees than the Air Force needs, Snodgrass said.
"We don't have a solution yet," he said. "The one thing we know right now is that the reductions are real. [The Office of the Secretary of Defense] has already taken what that other growth plan was — they've taken the spaces and they've taken the dollars."
The Air Force employs 177,383 civilians, and most of them work for Air Force Materiel Command. AFMC is surveying its employees to gauge their interest in buyouts and early retirement incentive programs, but no decisions have been made about whether the incentives will be offered.
Paige Hinkle-Bowles, deputy director of force management policy, said it's still too early to tell whether additional surveys about early retirements and buyouts will be sent out to the entire force.
"Right now, we're focusing on the hiring controls and going through the strategic review process," she said. "It's not unreasonable for an organization or command to do a general interest survey to say, ‘If we get to the point where we need to do early retirements or offering voluntary separation incentives, would you be interested?' That's just a management tool that helps an organization get a sense of what kind of reaction they would get."
Snodgrass said many of the thousands of civilian positions that the Air Force had planned to fill were available because of insourcing and a decreased reliance on contractors.
The president has charged the Pentagon with finding $400 billion in national security cuts by 2023, in addition to the $400 billion in savings the services have already found.