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Air Force faces shortage of engineers

Mar. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By Aaron Mehta Staff writer   |   Comments
Fourth of July
Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley said the service has seen an almost 30 percent loss of senior scientists in the past two years. (Air Force)

WASHINGTON — More than any other U.S. military service, the Air Force depends on a constant stream of technological improvements and scientific breakthroughs. But according to the service’s chief scientist, a “perfect storm” of personnel issues is endangering the retention and recruitment of top scientific talent.

“When we asked recently across our AFRL [Air Force Research Laboratory] directorates how many of you are afraid of losing people, and know people have résumés on the street, every single hand went up,” Mica Endsley said. “So those are the kind of worries we have. We need to retain the people we’ve got, as well as be able to recruit in new people coming into the field, and it’s a challenge under those circumstances.”

There are about 26,000 personnel in the science and engineering career fields in the Air Force, roughly split at 16,000 civilian, 10,000 on active duty. Of that total, around 2,800 civilians and 500 military personnel work at Air Force research labs; the rest are involved in programs such as new system acquisition or maintenance offices.

Endsley said the service has seen an almost 30 percent loss in the last two years of senior scientists — the chief technicians and other leaders who help guide labs and develop new programs — leaving a potential void at the top levels.

“The curve is bimodal,” Endsley said. “We have a large number of people over 50. We have a larger number of people under 35. Then we have a gap in the middle, where we didn’t recruit very much in the 1990s.

“As we move early retirements in and have senior people leaving, there’s going to be a gap in leadership where we don’t have many people in the middle ranks to take over,” she said.

At the same time, recruitment of young people with technical expertise has become challenging.

The issue isn’t a lack of budget, although like everyone else, the research labs would be happy to accept more funding. The service’s top two officials made it clear at a February event that they recognize the need to protect those investments.

“S&T [science and technology] funding is absolutely essential to a service that prides itself on being fueled by innovations, was born of technology and must stay ahead of the technological curve to be successful,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff. “So we have to pay a lot of attention to S&T funding. Every funding line we have is coming down, but we can’t slash S&T.”

Those comments were echoed by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who said, “There was an effort to protect these accounts vis-à-vis others, primarily because it is so important.”

Numbers compiled for Defense News by analytics firm VisualDoD show research and development (R&D) funding for the Air Force in the proposed fiscal 2015 budget at $23.7 billion. Roughly $2.1 billion is requested for AFRL, a figure slated to grow slightly each year of the five-year future years defense program.

For fiscal 2015, the largest chunk of that funding — $689.1 million — is earmarked for the service’s Aerospace Systems Directorate.

But according to service estimates, the research labs touch little of that money — about 75 percent of R&D funding earmarked for the research labs is actually contracted out to academia and industry.

Endsley said she appreciates that the Air Force has tried to protect its investments in science, even as whole fleets of aircraft are being sacrificed on the altar of budget austerity. But she says the issue is more about morale than available funding.

The largest reason for the morale issue? Uncertainty, she said. The sequestered budget forced civilian furloughs in 2013. AFRL civilians outnumber active-duty personnel by more than five to one, and those individuals lost six days of paychecks, in addition to long-running civilian pay freezes. Although they were eventually paid for their time off during the government shutdown, that instability didn’t help.

Given all that, Endsley said, young aerospace engineers coming out of college with tuition debts to pay would be hard-pressed to choose the Air Force over an industry job. That the service rarely offers to pay for graduate school any more is another challenge to recruiting the next generation of engineers.

Another major challenge, and one she hopes to see changed, is the inability to travel to technical conferences, a Pentagon-wide problem stemming from a series of government travel abuses several years ago.

An engineer looking to travel to a scientific conference to present a paper needs special dispensation from Welsh. Given the daily demands on the chief of staff, getting that permission has proved a problem — and that’s turning people away.

“It’s very important they are interacting with other engineers in their profession, in academia and the commercial world,” Endsley said. “They need to be able to meet with them to figure out where to put our research dollars. They need to be publishing their work because that’s how science is done.”

Endsley wants to see scientific conferences handled differently than other conferences, and noted that “there have been some discussions at [the defense secretary level], but I haven’t seen any movement in that direction.”

While the civilian side raises concerns, the number of active-duty individuals in the S&T realm also concerns the chief scientist. Endsley said she believes the service should develop a separate promotion system for scientists and engineers, similar to how medical doctors or lawyers have different criteria.

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