"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
"You don't just turn the spigot on and say we'll have more engineers."
Budget instability caused last year by sequestration -- from civilian furloughs to grounded jets -- could hurt
"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
The status of the
"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
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
To work on a classified project at a
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
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
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?
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
"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
"Thirty (or) 40 years ago, really, (the
Commercial investment in technology in some sectors "dwarfs" what the military spends, McFawn said. The
"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
In the so-called post-Cold War peace dividend era of the 1990s, the
Budget cuts loom
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
The study found that for every two students U.S. colleges graduate with a STEM degree, one is hired in a STEM field.
"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
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
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."
"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
"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."
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
"Those two programs alone require the best and the brightest," he said, "and our national security depends on them."
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