Cover: Department of the Air Force Civilian Compensation and Benefits

Department of the Air Force Civilian Compensation and Benefits

How Five Mission Critical and Hard-to-Fill Occupations Compare to the Private Sector and Key Federal Agencies

Published Feb 10, 2021

by Ginger Groeber, Kirsten M. Keller, Philip Armour, Samantha E. DiNicola, Irina A. Chindea, Brandon Crosby, Ellen E. Tunstall, Shreyas Bharadwaj


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Research Questions

  1. What constraints does the Air Force operate under in comparison with compensation and benefit structures found in other federal agencies and the private sector?
  2. How does Air Force compensation for select hard-to-fill or mission critical occupations compare with that offered in other federal agencies and the private sector?
  3. What can be done to improve the competitiveness of the Air Force's compensation and benefits packages to better recruit and retain top-tier civilian talent?

The U.S. Department of the Air Force has approximately 200,000 civilian employees working in 600 different occupations and professions. This includes approximately 170,000 appropriated fund civilians and more than 16,000 civilian employees who work in specialized research facilities and laboratories in 22 different locations across the United States.A critical tool in recruiting and retaining top-tier civilian talent is the compensation and benefits package offered. However, a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that the competitiveness of federal wages in general varies widely depending on educational attainment.

The Air Force Directorate of Civilian Force Management asked Project AIR FORCE to conduct a study to help address concerns regarding the Air Force's ability to compete with private-sector compensation and benefits, particularly for hard-to-fill and mission critical occupations (MCOs). This report documents the constraints the Air Force must operate under in comparison with compensation and benefit structures found in other federal agencies and the private sector. It provides recommendations to improve the competitiveness of Air Force compensation and benefits packages to better recruit and retain top-tier civilian talent.

Given the large number of civilian occupations within the Air Force, the authors focus specifically on five occupational fields identified as priorities because they are either designated as mission critical or are particularly hard to fill: Aircraft Operations, Air Traffic Control, Human Resources Management, Information Technology Management (Cyber), and Aircraft Mechanic.

Key Findings

  • The Air Force has not yet developed internal standardized written procedures for determining mission critical occupations.
  • For several occupations, current Office of Personnel Management classification and/or qualification standards do not reflect the current operational environment or job demands.
  • For several occupations, current Air Force pay is significantly lower than that in the private sector. However, there is often substantial variation between the state level and the locality pay area level, which needs to be taken into account when hiring in local labor markets.
  • The use of recruitment, relocation, and retention incentives varies across installations, and their use depends on the availability of local base or activity funds.
  • The Air Force's use of special salary rates is critical in trying to close the pay gap between the Air Force and the private sector, but statutory pay caps hinder this approach.
  • Job vacancy announcements often include boilerplate language, provide wide ranges of pay grades and associated salary levels, and lack mission and culture statements.
  • Air Force personnel covered by pay band systems have the potential to receive higher pay, and that might assist in recruiting and retaining mission critical personnel.


  • Develop a policy and approach for determining and addressing mission critical occupations (MCOs).
  • Explore whether special salary rates need to be established or updated for MCOs and hard-to-fill occupations and localities.
  • Establish Air Force-level data collection standards and an analysis plan for incentive use and examine the feasibility of establishing central funding for recruiting, retention, and relocation incentives and permanent change of station for MCOs and hard-to-fill occupations.
  • Update vacancy announcements to ensure that they are more applicant friendly and that they provide more specific, accurate, and enticing information about compensation and benefits.
  • Establish Air Force-wide communities of practice for recruiting and retaining personnel from MCOs and hard-to-fill occupations.
  • Use Transition Assistance Programs to help fill jobs.
  • In coordination with DoD, petition the Office of Personnel Management to review classification and qualification standards and to update them as necessary to reflect current Air Force occupational requirements.
  • Explore the potential implications of raising the salary pay cap for aircraft operations and air traffic controller positions, which require higher special salary rates. This would require legislative action.
  • Pursue the ability of the Air Force to establish and use pay bands for MCOs or hard-to-fill occupations. This would require legislative action.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Air Force Directorate of Civilian Force Management (AF/A1C) and was conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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