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Air Force Battles Shortage of Scientists, Engineers

Air Force Battles Shortage of Scientists, Engineers

By Tech Sgt. Carl Norman, Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio -- (AFPN) August 2, 2002 -- As scientifically developed precision-guided weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles help fight terrorism around the globe today, Air Force leaders are battling a shortage of the very scientists and engineers who created that weaponry.

Of the Air Force's 13,300 military and civilian scientist and engineer authorizations, the service is short about 2,700, or about 20 percent, according to Scott McLennan, Air Force Materiel Command system integration engineer. That number only reflects current vacancies.

AFMC employs the lion's share of Air Force scientists and engineers. A decade of downsizing and hiring freezes has made up to 70 percent of its civilian workforce, including scientists and engineers, retirement eligible in the next five to seven years. This is a looming problem, according to Gen. Lester Lyles, AFMC commander.

He said if this trend is left unchecked it could pose a possible readiness problem for AFMC and the Air Force. Losing its home-grown scientific and engineering capabilities could force the world's most prominent air power to contract out some of those needs.

"In AFMC our mission is to provide the tools for the warfighter, and if we're not able to meet and understand the needs of the warfighter with our own organic capabilities we're not going to be as well off as we need to be," he said. "If we have to contract it out, I think we're going to lose. Whether it's in terms of dollars or the linkage to the warfighters and rest of the Air Force, I think we will definitely lose."

"We're going to be taking on more and more risk of our development programs failing without proper oversight from our own organic workforce," said James Papa, AFMC engineering and technical management director.

"We're going to be increasing the cost of doing business in some cases by having to contract out some of our engineering support," said Papa. "If we don't maintain our own organic capability for oversight of the people we're asking to build our systems for us, we lose the expertise to define what our systems ought to be and make sure they're done properly. Then we'll wind up with systems that don't meet cost or schedule or have performance problems."

To help make people aware of the situation and to find solutions, Lyles declared 2002 as the Year of the Engineer and Scientist, more commonly know as YES.

The hope is that this initiative will remind everyone that scientists and engineers take concepts and ideas born in laboratories and turn them into active and working weapon systems, Papa said. Then they will sustain those systems on through aging and retirement.

The YES initiative focuses on three main areas: workforce training and development, workforce size and mix, and motivation, Papa said.

"We're currently working initiatives and legislation in all these areas," Papa said. "It's just going to take some time to get what we need in place, up and running."

AFMC and Air Force officials face several hurdles in recruiting and retaining scientists and engineers. First, the Air Force has to compete for retaining people because they are in demand on the outside. Papa said the nation as a whole has had lower and lower production numbers of engineers out of colleges so scientists and engineers are becoming a very valuable commodity.

"As a nation we're going to be constantly fighting over a limited resource," he said. "In the case of the Air Force, we're going to be in the middle of that battle for talent."

Another hurdle AFMC and Air Force scientist and engineer recruiting faces is a disproportionate age distribution in the workforce, according to Papa.

"We have a gap in the middle and lower civilian grades because of hiring freezes during the years and also a lack of accessions in the military," he said. "So we have about 70 percent of our folks eligible to retire by 2007. If we do nothing, we're going to see the whole problem aggravated by a continuing exodus of our senior people and no seed corn to bring in behind them."

For people considering scientific and engineering work for the Air Force, Papa said there are a lot of opportunities available. People in these fields are involved in leading-edge activity and get increased responsibility sooner in their careers, he said. They also contribute to the country's strength, well-being and military power.

"We're never going to offer the kinds of opportunities like stock options and gigantic six-figure salaries that maybe young people feel they can have in the world of dot coms and other higher risk businesses," Papa said. "But there are a large number of folks who find working for the Air Force a rewarding career and they are the kind of folks we're looking for."

While AFMC is seven months into YES, Papa said it is too early to tell what impact the initiative has had on the problem.

"It takes a while to understand whether we've turned anything around, but we're anticipating by next year we'll be able to have a way to look back on that to see if anything has improved," he said.

To make sure enough emphasis is placed on the problem and solutions are reached, Lyles said AFMC's Year of the Engineer and Scientist will continue into 2003.

(Courtesy of AFMC News Service)


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).