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Research Questions

  1. How should organizations such as the Air Force manage, support, and organize civilian STEM professionals to best leverage their individual and collective talents, and thereby maximize performance, productivity, and innovation?
  2. What are the findings from the scholarly and professional literature related to optimizing the effectiveness and productivity of professionals engaged in STEM occupations?
  3. What approaches could maximize organizational outcomes of STEM workforces in national security organizations, such as the Air Force in particular and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and its components in general?

The U.S. Air Force's ability to accomplish national security goals relies heavily on research advances in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The current shortage of STEM professionals has a direct impact on how the Air Force carries out its mission. Addressing the gap in the Air Force's civilian STEM workforce and optimizing the productivity of its existing civilian STEM employees falls squarely within the Air Force's responsibility. Because of concerns over the shortage of civilian STEM professionals, especially those with advanced degrees, Air Force leadership asked RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF) to explore the existing academic and professional literature on STEM workforce to gain insights into how organizations such as the Air Force should manage, support, and organize their current civilian STEM workers to best leverage their talents and thereby maximize performance.

PAF engaged in an extensive survey of the relevant literature for the study. First, the authors provided a brief overview of the differences between modern knowledge organizations, in contrast to traditional manufacturing or industrial organizations. Second, they described the characteristics of work that most appeal to STEM workers and drive their productivity. Third, the authors discussed human-capital functions that relate to the performance of STEM workers. Fourth, they discussed the changes in organizational structure most likely to foster STEM employees' productivity and innovation. Finally, the last section of this report summarizes the researchers' findings and recommendations.

Key Findings

  • STEM workers are more productive and innovative when organizational culture and climate promote four key characteristics: autonomy, collaboration, focus on substantive work, and flexible work arrangements.
  • Women in STEM need role models provided by other women who have succeeded in their respective fields, family friendly policies, opportunities for professional growth, and a work environment free of negative stereotypes and of sexual harassment.
  • Extending the professional-development opportunities of the civilian STEM workforce and tailoring the rewards, recognition, and performance-management systems to match individual inclinations and interest in technical versus management tracks are likely to optimize the performance of the existing STEM workforce within the Air Force.
  • A network of autonomous cells or task forces represents the structure most likely to provide the STEM employees with a culture and climate fostering autonomy, collaboration, focus on substantive work, and flexibility.


  • The Air Force has numerous options to consider in managing, supporting, and organizing its current civilian STEM workers.
  • Bring the compensation of its STEM workforce in line as much as possible with private-sector compensation.
  • Allow for autonomy and flexibility as well as performance-management and career-advancement paths that take into account each individual's interests in promotion and in the pursuit of the available career tracks.
  • Establish a mechanism that balances STEM workers' need for flexible work arrangements with organizational and job requirements for on-site presence to access facilities, technologies, and classified material.
  • Expand professional-development opportunities offered to civilian STEM employees.
  • Address factors that demotivate women in STEM occupations and taking into account the women-specific drivers that are likely to optimize their productivity.
  • Implement and extend a contribution-based system to those parts of the Air Force where such a system is not present.
  • Set in place separate, simplified—even flat—structures that facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing across the STEM workforce.
  • Use the existing Air Force Science and Technology Fellowship Program as a cost-efficient and fast way to attract newly graduated talent and host fellowships funded by other federal organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Conduct its own independent study to determine which of the factors and in what combinations are likely to have the highest impact on the productivity of civilian STEM workers.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Optimizing the Alignment Between Work and STEM Professional Characteristics

  • Chapter Three

    Human Capital Functions

  • Chapter Four

    The Role of Organizational Structure in Optimizing Performance of STEM Workers

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions and Recommendations

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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