The Civil Service Time Bomb

July 1, 2001

In the years just ahead, the Air Force likely will face a personnel crisis of unparalleled scope and magnitude as thousands of civilian employees with crucial technical, scientific, and program management skills approach retirement age.

More than 40 percent of these employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. Less than 10 percent of Air Force civilians are in their first five years of employment.

It’s a problem found throughout the Department of Defense. Years of constrained hiring in the drawdown decade of the 1990s has left the Pentagon with a civilian workforce that is both heavily skewed toward older employees and dogged by skill imbalances.

At a minimum, the Air Force and Pentagon will experience problems with the orderly transfer of institutional knowledge as they struggle to attract younger civilian workers willing and able to make a difference in the high-tech future military.

F. Whitten Peters, Secretary of the Air Force in the last years of the Clinton Administration, issued one of the sternest warnings yet. He said, “I cannot stress enough that the age and experience [problem] in our civilian workforce is a time bomb waiting to go off.”

To stop that ticking, officials in recent years have convened two civilian workforce summits. Legislation allowing the service to pay for civilian academic degrees and to offer voluntary early retirement bonuses may help meet force-shaping requirements.

Even so, recruitment will likely be the key to maintaining civilian workforce quality. Personnel officials are doing everything from developing an e-recruiting process to planning direct-mail outreach to potential candidate groups.

Business Will Boom

“In five years … our business is going to be big,” says Hong Miller, chief of the recruitment unit in the Directorate of Civilian Personnel Operations, Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph AFB, Tex.

The Air Force civilian workforce, like its uniformed counterpart, needs to be a balanced mix of new, midlevel, and senior employees if it is to function at peak efficiency.

Over the last decade, however, the flow of new employees into the service has slowed considerably, in part because the Air Force was just not hiring. Restrictions on bringing in new civilian recruits may have been an easy and relatively humane way to handle the downsizing needs of the 1990s, but it led to a graying of the existing workforce and sent potential workers a message that an Air Force career really was not for them. The result: The Air Force’s civilian workforce today is more likely to watch “Murder She Wrote” reruns than MTV.

At the same time, the service has experienced dramatic growth in the need for civilians with cutting-edge high-technology skills. The explosion in new computer and communications technologies is one reason for this change.

Another, less obvious reason is the rise of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force. Says the 2001 Report of the Secretary of the Air Force: “The EAF has extended the role of civilians [to encompass the task of] providing reachback support to deployed troops, requiring a different mix of midlevel and senior civilian employees.” Reachback is the process by which forward deployed troops use highly sophisticated telecommunications to tap into knowledge and databases in the United States or some other rear location.

Increasingly, the best and brightest techies are finding more money and greater challenge elsewhere. Consider the state of the Air Force laboratory network. In only four years, 30 percent of its civilian scientists and engineers will be eligible to retire. Only two percent are younger than 30.

Nor is the Air Force alone. The Department of Defense as a whole is facing a civilian personnel shortfall unforeseen only a few years ago. Today, the American public has become less and less aware of defense employment opportunities and less and less favorably disposed toward any kind of government service.

Annual accessions of new Pentagon civilian employees have fallen to about 20,000 a year–a figure 61 percent smaller than it was in 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War. In general, those hires are older than they used to be. The number of new employees under 31 has fallen by three-quarters over the last decade.

Analysts used to warn about an impending “bow wave” of spending needs that would crash over the Pentagon as expensive weapon systems entered production. Today they might as well talk about a bow wave of future retirement parties for DOD’s increasingly gray-haired civilian population.

Scarce Engineers

The problem is particularly acute in such highly educated sectors as science and engineering.

One factor causing concern is the renewal rate–that is, number of accessions divided by total number of employees–of the DOD science and engineering workforce. In 1989, the annual rate stood at about eight percent. In 2000, it was four percent. Now, at least, the trend line is moving in the right direction. The renewal rate for scientists and engineers was even lower in 1998, when it bottomed out at two percent, but more needs to be done.

“It is now time for the department to focus its attention on shaping an effective civilian force for the future and developing effective tools to support this effort,” according to a Defense Science Board statement.

The Air Force will need to mount a comprehensive effort to avoid being caught with too few civilian employees with the wrong mix of skills by the middle of this decade. David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the General Accounting Office, told service personnel that gathering good data is the first step. The Air Force needs a “strategic workforce plan” that addresses “where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going,” said Walker during a May conference sponsored by the Air Force Directorate of Civilian Personnel.

This does not mean that service personnel officials have just been sitting around bemoaning their fate and drafting Help Wanted ads to post in supermarkets. Last year two civilian workforce shaping summits gathered representatives from the Air Staff, major commands, and Air Force Personnel Center to compare notes and draft lists of possible initiatives.

Among summit areas of interest: legislation allowing more flexible hiring practices and a model capable of crunching personnel accession, sustainment, and separation data to produce more accurate projections of future skills requirements.

Department of Defense officials have already won some legislative relief from Congress. Last year lawmakers passed provisions authorizing DOD to pay buyouts to current employees, in the name of rebalancing the civilian skill-and-age mix.

Similarly, the Pentagon has now been given the money to assist civilian workers seeking to obtain advanced degrees and to repay student loans for all workers, regardless of their bureaucratic occupation.

In an effort to improve morale and fire up a sense of mission, DOD has also started the Defense Leadership and Management Program, an educational initiative aimed at key early and midcareer civilians.

DLAMP rotates key personnel through defense-oriented graduate education at such locations as the National Defense University and a one-year job assignment outside their primary occupation. The first DLAMP class graduated last year; the program counts nearly 1,400 people who have participated in some capacity.

Recruitment, however, remains the front line of the workforce battle. Even though the economy has slowed somewhat, USAF officials expect fierce competition from private industry for prized talent throughout the foreseeable future.

The Air Force civilian recruitment effort works on two levels. AFPC’s Recruiting Unit at Randolph sets overall strategy and conducts general activities. Then, civilian personnel flights at local bases address local issues and needs.

Vast Challenge

One of the unit’s tasks is to figure out where to focus recruiting efforts. Its annual Recruitment Needs Assessment identifies hard-to-fill, high-turnover occupations. The issue involves more than skilled tech workers. AFPC looks at everything from Ph.D.-level employment to the guards who check in visitors at installation gates. The task, notes Miller, is “vast.”

Engineers, unsurprisingly, are the No. 1 recruitment problem. Others in the top 10 include contract specialists, meteorological technicians, and aircraft engine mechanics.

Jobs requiring specialized technical skills are not the only ones that go begging. Security guards and secretaries are on the RNA list, as well. “During the summer we even have a hard time recruiting enough lifeguards” for base pools, says Miller.

One of the new initiatives AFPC has adopted as it looks to the coming employee crunch is e-recruiting. That entails posting information about jobs on specialized headhunter Internet sites.

E-recruiting has helped fill 300 vacancies at 48 different bases since last fall, according to AFPC. In some cases hiring time has been as short as four days. “It’s very new to this point,” says Miller. “We think it’s successful.”

AFPC is also trying to pinpoint effective national-level job fairs. Officials inform local bases if open jobs are eligible for special pay. Information Technology workers, for example, recently became eligible for a special boost in pay, but IT is one area where the Air Force can only remain in hailing distance of private sector pay scales. Recruitment requires emphasis on other attractions, such as job security, generous leave allowances, and travel opportunities.

“Private industry can offer lots of money, fast,” says Miller. “We try to focus on longevity and benefits.”

The recruitment unit has only been operational since last September and still has much basic work to do, says its chief.

Not all USAF institutions are planning a head-on battle to maintain in-house civilian workforces. Air Force Research Laboratory, for one, is planning to outflank the developing problem via collaboration with industry and academia.

Coming Exodus

AFRL’s civilian workforce has already been reduced by a third by downsizing pressures. Of its remaining workforce, half will be eligible to retire in six to 10 years.

Aware of the need to head off an onrushing Air Force brain drain, Peters, the former Secretary, several years ago commissioned a study, “Science and Technology Workforce for the 21st Century.” The study’s proposed solution: outsourcing.

AFRL’s nine research sites would contract out to private contractors, universities, not-for-profit organizations, and federally funded research and development centers most of the research and technical development work. In-house work would focus on core expertise and outsource management. The goal is to reduce the share of the workforce made up of permanent civil service employees from the current 51 percent to 42 percent. Officials report that all service labs are headed in that direction.

“Our military and permanent government personnel will perform inherent government functions and provide continuity, while a mix of nonpermanent government personnel and collaborators will bring agility and fresh ideas to the team,” said retired Maj. Gen. Richard R. Paul, who was AFRL commander at the time the report was released.

To some extent, the data pointing out the percentage of workers eligible for retirement in the years ahead exaggerates the Air Force’s personnel problem. Just because someone is up for a gold watch does not mean he will take it. Most federal employees do not retire immediately upon reaching eligibility, notes a recent General Accounting Office study. In fact, there is some evidence that they are putting off retirement longer than in the past.

In 1988, 40 percent of federal workers retired in the first year in which they could, according to GAO. By 1997, that figure had fallen to 21 percent.

The retirement problem is only too real. GAO estimates that the number of workers retiring from the federal government as a whole over the next five years will be somewhat higher than the downsizing and retirement losses of the past eight years.

According to GAO, roughly 493,000 employees in the 24 largest agencies will be eligible to retire between now and 2006. GAO believes actual retirements will claim about 236,000–roughly half of these. In Congress, these numbers are viewed with alarm, and some lawmakers talk about a “human capital crisis” within the federal government.

In some ways, the upheaval in the civilian workforce is also an opportunity. Officials will have a chance to shape the service’s mix of skills and age in a manner reflective of today’s need for flexibility.

Consider the Pentagon’s acquisition professionals. More than 50 percent could retire by 2005. That would require a surge in recruiting at all levels, according to a study released last October by the undersecretary of defense, acquisition, technology, and logistics and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Yet in recent years DOD has seen a profound shift in what top officials expect from the acquisition corps. Outsourcing, base closures, and technical innovation have all created a need for a more multifunctional, multiskilled staff, according to the report.

The retirement of a mass of baby boomers could thus represent a once-in-a-generation chance at rebuilding. “Demographics and downsizing have given DOD a unique window of opportunity to transform the acquisition workforce to meet future challenges,” concludes the study.

Whatever the potential benefits, the civilian personnel situation contains more than a few serious dangers. Among those concerned about the problem is Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who until last month chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

“We have a much more complex world with many more vulnerabilities than we’ve had before, and we’re losing good people-the very kind of people that we need to address those kinds of problems,” said Thompson. “In a town where a new crisis is invented every 48 hours, … this is really one. This is the real McCoy.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Force and Space,” appeared in the February 2001 issue.