Cover: Air Force-Wide Needs for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Academic Degrees

Air Force-Wide Needs for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Academic Degrees

Published Oct 6, 2014

by Lisa M. Harrington, Lindsay Daugherty, Craig Moore, Tara L. Terry


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Research Questions

  1. What are the requirements for officers and officer-equivalent civilians with STEM academic degrees across all functional areas?
  2. Are sufficient numbers of officers and civilians available to fill these STEM academic requirements?
  3. Are processes in place to identify future STEM academic degree needs?

In evaluating the health of its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce, the U.S. Air Force has focused on functional areas where STEM degrees are mandatory. To date there has been no rigorous review of the needs for STEM academic degrees in other functional areas.

Understating the needs for officers and civilians with STEM degrees can diminish the Air Force's ability to maintain the technical skills it heavily relies upon to support air, space, and cyberspace operations. Analysis must begin with a definition of STEM versus non-STEM degrees. RAND researchers established a set of broad academic disciplinary groups that should be considered in the set of STEM degrees, as well as disciplines at the most detailed levels of Air Force degree codes. This categorization has been approved as the Air Force definition of STEM.

Career field managers across the Air Force were interviewed and asked to identify the STEM academic degrees necessary now and in the future for particular missions in their functional areas. Senior functional authorities at the two- and three-star level reviewed and in some cases revised what their own career field managers identified as STEM needs and validated the overall direction and the numbers of these degree requirements.

Although this approach lacks a method to determine the magnitude of future STEM needs in the programs identified, it does point to specific areas that the Air Force should review for emerging STEM needs, especially in light of force management actions in key technology areas.

Key Findings

Non-STEM career fields have undocumented STEM needs.

  • In some career fields where STEM degrees are not mandatory for entry, functional authorities validated significant unmet STEM needs (i.e., logistics and space and missile). Even in areas where STEM populations are nearly sufficient at present, such as cyberspace and acquisition management, requirements for these personnel are not documented in the Air Force Officer Classification Directory (AFOCD) or in Office of Personnel Management (OPM) standards for civilians; consequently, the personnel system will not necessarily provide a sufficient inventory in the future.

Personnel with STEM specialties are often loaned out.

  • Thirty-one percent of those holding STEM Air Force Specialty Codes are on loan to non-STEM functional areas serving as consultants.

The definitions of qualifications for functional area positions are imprecise.

  • Functional areas value officers with STEM degrees. It is not necessarily the STEM-specific knowledge that is necessary to carry out the position's duties, but the accompanying skills that STEM graduates are believed to be more likely to possess such as logical, systematic, critical, and analytical thinking, and problem solving.

Little attention is paid to reviewing future needs and adjusting requirements to meet them.

  • The academic degrees most likely to be in demand in career fields experiencing growth in the private sector are not emphasized in the corresponding Air Force career areas.



  • Develop evidence-based methods to refine academic degree requirements for functional areas, highlighting the need to consider the future.
  • Develop a more precise and visible framework for documenting the results of this method so the Air Force can sum up accession requirements by career field and know whom to recruit, access, and classify.
  • Adopt a more effective method of coding degree types.
  • Use data from this analysis and from results mentioned above to identify "critical" and "high utility" academic degrees for use across the accession process.
  • Consider substituting some STEM degree requirements with requirements for critical thinking skills identified by a minimum Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, perhaps with sufficient STEM coursework.


  • Highlight, within and across Air Force functional areas, requirements for STEM knowledge, skills, and degrees by delineating specific STEM skills in position descriptions, incentivizing employees to obtain STEM degrees by including them in promotion plans, and seeking relief from OPM prohibitions on requiring specific STEM degrees in nontechnical occupational series.
  • Promote and consider increasing programs that encourage STEM recruiting and retention for civil service positions.


  • Gather support for the STEM Advisory Council--approved classification of academic degrees to be accepted for all Air Force accession/hiring processes.
  • Ensure Air Force-wide STEM needs acknowledge STEM requirements in non-STEM functional areas.
  • Office of the Air Force Chief Scientist and the STEM Advisory Council communicate future technology needs to impacted functional areas and update degree requirements.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Integration, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition (SAF/AQX), and by the Director, Force Development, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Headquarters U.S. Air Force (HQ USAF/A1D) as part of fiscal year 2012 project "Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)," and was conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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