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Air Force faces shortage of engineers

Apr. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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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)
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More than any other 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.”

About 26,000 people work in the Air Force science and engineering career fields, roughly split at 16,000 civilian, 10,000 active duty. Of that total, around 2,800 civilians and 500 military personnel work at Air Force research labs.

Endsley said the service has seen an almost 30 percent loss in the past two years of senior scientists — the chief technicians and other leaders who help guide labs and develop new programs.

“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,” Endsley said. “As we move early retirements in and have senior people leaving, there’s going to be a gap in leadership.”

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.

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.”

Numbers compiled by analytics firm VisualDoD show research and development 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.

Endsley said she appreciates that the Air Force has tried to protect its investments in science. 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.

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.■

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