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Generating and projecting aerospace power in the 21st century are technologically complex, requiring a myriad of different skills. Recruiting, training, and retaining people with the necessary mix of skills are major challenges for the U.S. Air Force’s personnel community. Many career fields have been under strength for several years. This condition, together with the recent sharp increases in deployments (especially after the September 2001 attacks), has resulted in “stressed” career fields: too much work for too few people. This study’s original charter was to examine career fields that have been “chronically and critically” under strength over time, and to look for root causes and potential solutions. We initially pursued a case-study approach, focusing on five varied career fields from the set of non-rated line officers. Although each selected career field had its own set of problems, the details of those problems and potential solutions were widely known to the managers. However, the managers had little or no access to relevant policy levers, such as accession and retention policy, which are the basic components of force management. This systemic disconnect in force management lies at the root of many of the current understrength problems. After consulting with our sponsor, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (AF/DP), we reoriented the project to develop an overall framework for force management that would identify roles and organizations that could provide analysis and diagnosis of understrength conditions and could also execute appropriate policy interventions to solve the problems. Determination of personnel requirements, accessions, retention, education and training, assignments, and promotions must be managed closely and attentively, and such management must be performed at three different levels, which we denote by the familiar military terms of tactical (assignments of individual officers and their individual careers), operational (individual career fields, or a set of closely related fields), and strategic (the total Air Force workforce, including overall force size, officer/enlisted and component mix, and the balance between individual career fields). We contend that the root of understrength problems is gaps in force management, particularly at the operational and strategic levels, and that operational-level force management is the key to force management as a whole-providing both the policy framework that guides tactical-level management and the basic informational input for strategic-level decisions. Our recommendation for the operational-level job is to make the career field manager a full-time position and to put a senior functional officer in the position, as well as providing career field managers with dedicated and standardized analytic support.

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The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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