Air Force in ‘war for talent’ as it seeks to fill high-tech, pilot jobs

The Air Force finds itself in a “war for talent” competing against “more nimble” private-tech companies to fill science and technology positions, a top civilian service leader says.

More streamlined hiring processes are necessary to compete to fill shortages or niche jobs requiring high expertise, said Shon J. Manasco, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, who recently toured Wright-Patterson.

A shortage of drone and manned aircraft pilots, cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance airmen and other science and technology skills are high priorities among expectations to add 4,000 active-duty airmen by 2020, the Air Force says. At the same time, 500 would be added to the Air National Guard and 200 to Air Force Reserve.

Budget cuts have slashed positions before the latest push to reverse the decline. A recently reached two-year budget deal would push defense spending to $700 billion this fiscal year, exceeding spending reductions, known as sequestration, imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

“Sequestration definitely took a toll on all of the services and even if you look at post-Desert Storm, the manning in our Air Force really went down dramatically,” he said in an interview at Air Force Materiel Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson. “We’ve been able to make some improvements over the last several years to fill in critical vacancies that we have at the squadron level.”

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The Air Force will push production of pilots to 1,400 a year from 1,200 and upped retention bonuses because of a shortage of nearly 2,000 pilots across the service branch.

“Importantly, with pilots we have to continue to work on retention but if we can produce more pilots that will ease the tempo on our existing pilots,” Manasco said.

RELATED: Air Force boosts bonuses for fighter pilots to keep more in the cockpit

In total, the active-duty Air Force will grow to 329,100; 107,100 in the Air Guard; and 70,000 in the Air Force Reserve by 2020. The civilian workforce would reach more than 184,000, Air Force figures show.

Manasco, who was appointed to the post in November, made his first trip to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base last week to talk to some of the estimated 27,000 mostly civilian personnel at the sprawling base. The “immersion” tour included stops at the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

“One of the things that was eye-opening for me was just the breadth of what we do here at Wright-Patt,” said Manasco, a former corporate executive and Army veteran.

“…I can’t think of many things that happen in our Air Force today that in some way, shape or form, don’t touch Wright-Patt or Wright-Patt has a big influence in what it is we do.”

Years of short-term stopgap funding measures that stalled the launch of new programs and capped spending to prior years’ levels impacted Air Force employment numbers, he said.

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Since September, Congress has passed five short-term stopgap spending measures – known as continuing resolutions — in place of a fully funded defense budget.

“What we’ve had to do over the course of a number of years without a real budget (and) living on a continuing resolution is we’ve had to make some really tough trade-offs and some of those trade-offs have meant that we have needed to redeploy or leave open really important jobs at the squadron level,” he said.

The Air Force has not yet determined the future size of the civilian workforce, he said.

“What we do in the Air Force is vital to national security and so I think we should anticipate the demand signal for what it is we do will only increase,” he said.

“Now, if Congress says there’s going to be an active-duty manpower gap that means we’re going to have to think about how do we really leverage the reserve component even more so than we do today, but also the (civilian workforce),” Manasco said. ”A lot of people don’t know just how important the civilian workforce is … they are absolutely critical.”

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In the future, Manasco said he sees a mix of technology and more manpower to meet those demands.

He expected a high pace of operations and deployments to continue.

“I don’t necessarily see that tempo slowing unless given our ability to project strength and lethality allows our diplomats to reduce the need for us to be activity engaged in certain (areas of responsibility),” he said.

RELATED: Lack of defense budget raising concerns at Wright-Patterson

Manasco said he’s also interested in a boost support services to airmen’s families, such as those who have children with special needs.

“Candidly, I think there’s more work that we can do to really surround these families and pull them even closer to the Air Force, especially while their loved ones are deployed,” he said.

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