The number of scientists and engineers retiring at the Air Force’s top science research agency has doubled in the past five years, and defense experts say the trend could lead to a shortage because a growing number of highly trained workers are eligible to leave.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson, has a workforce with about half the employees age 50 or older. This year, 20 percent of the agency’s scientists and engineers were eligible for retirement; by 2018 that figure will reach 33 percent.
The Air Force reportedly has lost nearly 30 percent of its top senior scientists the past two years, as well.
Former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman R. Augustine said he expects a future shortage of engineers and scientists, which could impact national security. For decades, the United States has relied on superior technology to maintain an edge against adversaries.
“I do think it puts us at risk, and one of the greatest … dangers is it takes a long time (to find replacements),” said Augustine, a co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee in 2012 that reviewed the status of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce in the Department of Defense and U.S. defense industry.
“You don’t just turn the spigot on and say we’ll have more engineers.”
A 2010 National Academy of Sciences study projected a shortage of scientists and engineers between 2015 and 2020, said George K. Muellner, a former Boeing Co. executive who was a co-chairman of the review.
Budget instability caused last year by sequestration — from civilian furloughs to grounded jets — could hurt Air Force recruitment of civilian scientists and engineers, the retired Air Force lieutenant general said.
“To be frank, if they’re not able to start providing some stability to the folks they hire, they’re not going to compete well at all,” said Muellner, a past president of the American Association of Astronautics and Aeronautics.
The status of the Department of Defense science and engineering workforce has attracted the attention of Congress. As part of the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers required the Pentagon to report on STEM workforce needs by last March.
The Defense Department missed the deadline, but says a report will be released. In a Senate hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, pressed the Pentagon to release the data so Congress can assess the issue.
“We want them to define the problem … and then tell us how they recruit, how they retain and then what tools they need,” Portman told the Dayton Daily News.
Talent pool shrinks
The military and defense and national security contractors face the challenge of competing for a limited number of graduate school students. Many students in U.S. graduate schools are foreign citizens not eligible for security clearances.
“Now you’ve cut the pool of graduate students in half that we’re eligible to go after, and of the half that’s left we’re competing with industries that are more lucrative,” said Scott Coale, a retired colonel and former vice commander of the Air Force Research Lab.
To work on a classified project at a Department of Defense lab, a scientist or engineer must be a U.S. citizen with a security clearance, said Pamela Swann, AFRL deputy director of personnel.
In limited circumstances, AFRL may employ foreign-born scientists or engineers who have a green card, or permanent U.S. residency, but who do not work on classified projects, she said.
The 2010 study that reviewed the Air Force’s STEM needs noted “reason for concern as to whether the supply of scientists and engineers who can obtain a security clearance will be adequate to meet the future needs of the Air Force.”
The report said that while science and engineering degrees awarded increased 8 percent between 2000 and 2005, the number of those degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents fell 5.5 percent. It also said women and minorities were a growing segment of potential recruits and urged the Air Force to take a “proactive role” to address shortfalls in math and science skills among middle and high school students.
Augustine said U.S. high school students fare poorly in international science and math tests and often have not shown the kind of interest in STEM careers their counterparts in other countries have demonstrated.
“That’s the real problem,” he said.
Ready to leave?
Throughout the Air Force, 21 percent of scientists and 17 percent of engineers who are eligible retire every year. Forty-four percent of scientists and 40 percent of engineers are older than age 50, and the Air Force expects the retirement of 250 scientists and engineers every year until 2019.
Within AFRL, the agency reported that 311 scientists and engineers retired between fiscal years 2009 and 2013. In fiscal year 2009, 35 scientists and engineers retired at AFRL, and that number more than doubled to 76 in 2013, agency figures show. Retirements reached a peak of 96 in fiscal year 2012. The agency anticipates 400 more will opt for that path from this year through 2018.
As experienced scientists and engineers leave military laboratories, the Air Force faces a challenge to attract younger workers when many businesses want their talent and skills, said Lester McFawn, executive director of the Wright Brothers Institute and a former AFRL executive director.
“I think we’re in an increasingly competitive environment for technology-savvy scientists and engineers that can be attracted to and retained in AFRL,” McFawn said. “There’s so many exciting jobs in technology now. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about Apple, or Google, or a new start-up … and that presents a challenge for AFRL.
“Thirty (or) 40 years ago, really, (the Defense Department) had a much, much larger play in leading-edge technologies and now there’s broad segments of the technology world that are actually led by the commercial world.”
Commercial investment in technology in some sectors “dwarfs” what the military spends, McFawn said. The Pentagon should leverage the substantial commercial investment in information technology, in particular, to boost the military, he said.
Mica Endsley, chief scientist of the Air Force, said that the service has filled recent departures with younger workers.
“They’re extremely engaged and they’re extremely excited about the things they are about to do,” she said.
While older and younger workers fill large percentages of the science and technology workforce, the Air Force has less talent in the mid-level age range, she said.
In the so-called post-Cold War peace dividend era of the 1990s, the Air Force had lengthy hiring freezes and didn’t add as many scientists and engineers because of budget cuts, McFawn said.
Budget cuts loom
Today, the Air Force Research Lab relies on sources outside the agency for about half of its $4 billion budget. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, for example, contract with AFRL, Endsley said.
AFRL has 9,700 employees, of which 5,700 work directly in science and engineering jobs. The total includes civilian, military and contractor personnel.
Among civilian scientists and engineers, 20 percent have bachelor degrees, 47 percent have master’s degrees and 33 percent have doctorates, according to the agency.
Augustine said he doesn’t foresee a shortage of scientists and engineers today because of spending cuts. Muellner said budget cuts could mean younger employees will lose their jobs.
“The problem is when you have that excess the person out the door are the young people, and that’s not the way you maintain a long-term viable workforce,” he said.
Not everyone believes the nation at large has a shortage of STEM workers. A year ago, the Economic Policy Institute released a study that concluded there was “no lack of domestic graduates or existing domestic STEM workers to fill available STEM jobs.”
The study found that for every two students U.S. colleges graduate with a STEM degree, one is hired in a STEM field.
Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said the search for workers with science and math degrees is “very competitive” because “anybody who has STEM talent has lots of options.”
“The question for the people who are worried about this is, ‘What’s their strategy?’ ” Carnevale said. “If they’re worried they won’t be competitive down the road, they’re usually right.”
AFRL Executive Director Ricky Peters said the agency has direct hire authority that other Air Force agencies do not have. It also has the flexibility to set the salaries of new employees with masters and doctoral degrees. Portman said Congress in recent months authorized the same authority for new hires with bachelor degrees.
Peters said younger workers will have the opportunity to move up the employment ladder more quickly to fill a void of mid-level managers.
“The newer employees that are coming in are, I think, well-prepared and we’re doing our best with a workforce development initiative to try to make sure we have them prepared,” he said. “We’re trying to get them everything they need” in leadership, technical and workforce development training “so we aren’t caught by surprise … when people do retire.”
AFRL has 5,500 employees who work at Wright-Patterson in four directorates — aerospace systems, materials and manufacturing, sensors and the 711th Human Performance Wing.
The AFRL top civilian leader said one of his recruitment focuses is to pay attention to millennials’ lifestyle needs.
“I do worry about making sure that somebody in my position doesn’t miss something,” he said.
Sequestration hit the military with spending reductions and civil service employee furloughs last summer, but Peters said it did not lead to an employee exodus at the laboratory. About 35 people among 2,800 scientists and engineers left for reasons other than retirement, he said.
But sequestration did impact research and employee morale.
Mandatory furlough days kept researchers out of labs. The timing of some research projects shifted, tuition reimbursement was suspended for several months, and travel to conferences was banned.
“It’s not the money at that point,” Peters said. “It’s the inability to do your job. It’s the inability for the researchers to follow their research. It’s the inability to go to conferences and talk with your peers.
“Those were the kinds of things that were more stressful, I think,” he said. “The money is always important, but that’s what drove the uncertainty.”
Recognizing the importance of scientists and engineers, the Air Force pushed down the authority to approve travel to conferences to the level of a lab commander instead of the secretary of the Air Force, the service’s highest-ranking civilian post.
Researchers prize conferences to exchange ideas and present findings, officials said.
“It’s fundamental to them being able to do their job to interact with industry and academia” and other professionals, Endsley said. “That’s been almost impossible to do the last couple of years.”
The Air Force suspended tuition reimbursement, but later reversed course.
“We had people pursuing graduate degrees, and in some cases they paid for that out of their pockets instead of us paying for that tuition,” Peters said.
AFRL’s unique research work has been a major draw for people to stay, said Coale, vice president of the defense services division at Modern Technology Solutions Inc., a technical services firm in Beavercreek.
“What I learned in my AFRL time is typically they stay because they’re doing really interesting work and they’d like to stay engaged in that,” he said. “The plan to retain that intellectual capital must be developed, but it’s not necessarily a crisis.”
He said the lab saw similar retirement projections in the 1970s and 1980s, but the departure rate never met the number of those eligible to leave.
“That’s one of the things that makes this difficult, because there’s some uncertainty here,” Coale said. “An employee might be eligible to retire, but that doesn’t mean they are going to retire.”
The Air Force has planned stable funding for science and technology research in the next two years, and the field has key backers in Congress, Peters said.
What happens in fiscal year 2016, when automatic sequestration cuts return, isn’t known, he said.
Portman said a strong STEM workforce is vital to both AFRL and the Air Force Institute of Technology, a post-graduate school at Wright-Patterson.
“Those two programs alone require the best and the brightest,” he said, “and our national security depends on them.”
Retiring at a higher rate
Air Force-wide retirements of scientists and engineers have increased in recent years.
Fiscal Year Retirements Percent eligible who retired
2013 270 18.9
2012 380 27.7
2011 291 22.4
2010 240 19.2
2009 185 16.5
Source: U.S. Air Force