Cover: Attracting and Employing Top-Tier Civilian Technical Talent in the Department of the Air Force

Attracting and Employing Top-Tier Civilian Technical Talent in the Department of the Air Force

A Comparison of Six Occupations with Other Federal Agencies and the Private Sector

Published Jun 27, 2023

by Kirsten M. Keller, Ginger Groeber, Philip Armour, Jenna W. Kramer, Shirley M. Ross, Diana Y. Myers, Hannah Acheson-Field, Samantha E. DiNicola, Shreyas Bharadwaj, Stephanie Williamson

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Research Questions

  1. What barriers hamper the ability of the DAF to attract and employ top civilian technical talent?
  2. What strategies can the DAF use to better compete for top civilian technical talent?

As demand for technical talent is expected to increase across the U.S. workforce over the next decade, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) wants to ensure that it is competitive in attracting top-tier talent (e.g., highly skilled experts and promising new graduates). The authors of this report assessed the DAF's ability to attract and employ top civilian talent in six occupational series: Computer Science, Operations Research, Electronics Engineer, Engineering Technician, Airfield Manager, and Nurse.

For each occupational series, the authors highlight key recruiting and employment challenges, the use of available hiring authorities and flexibilities, and how current DAF pay compares with pay in the sister services, other federal agencies, and the private sector. They also describe findings from interviews with university career services offices and private-sector recruiting experts regarding the factors potential job candidates consider when making employment decisions, as well as findings from interviews with recruiting and hiring representatives from the sister services and other federal agencies regarding alternative employment options and practices that other federal organizations have found effective. The authors conclude by providing recommendations on actions the DAF can take to better compete for top-tier civilian technical talent.

Key Findings

  • Common barriers identified by DAF representatives to recruiting and hiring top-tier talent include a small talent pool with the desired skills and credentials for some occupations, lower pay relative to the private sector, lengthy hiring timelines, challenges with hiring in remote locations, and lack of effective marketing and recruiting at the local level.
  • Although many of the occupations included in this review have direct hire authorities (DHAs), DAF representatives voiced concerns regarding whether DHAs and their associated flexibilities were being used to the fullest extent.
  • Data show inconsistent or minimal use of recruiting, relocation, and retention incentives for some occupational series.
  • For several occupations, pay comparisons show that DAF pay lags behind that of the other services and certain federal government agencies. This gap is due to lower numbers of positions in demonstration projects and alternative personnel systems that provide more-flexible pay options. In addition, data show that DAF pay is often lower compared with other services and other agencies within pay plan type: General Schedule, demonstration projects, or alternative personnel systems.
  • Representatives from university career services offices and private-sector recruiting experts indicated in interviews that recruiting top undergraduate candidates and experienced talent requires more than compensation: It demands emphasis on mission, innovation, and professional opportunities.
  • These interviews, along with interviews with representatives from other federal agencies, also highlight the importance of increased marketing and branding through the use of specialized recruiters and expanded and effective use of social media and internet tools.

Recommendations

  • Ensure that hiring managers are aware of and understand how to use available hiring authorities and related flexibilities.
  • Review current outreach and marketing efforts to ensure that they address factors that are important to potential candidates, including focusing on mission, values, and opportunities for innovation and professional growth.
  • Create opportunities throughout the educational lifespan of potential undergraduate student candidates to build familiarity with DAF and civilian job opportunities.
  • Consider the increased use of specialized civilian recruiters at the Air Force Personnel Center, whose focus is on identifying applicant pools and interfacing with potential applicants, to help facilitate an enterprise-wide recruiting approach.
  • Review position scope and level of work for the occupations covered in this report where inconsistencies were found with sister services to determine whether positions are accurate and comparable to sister service positions.
  • Assess why some positions that could be covered by alternative pay structures are not, and explore options for expanding or adopting alternative pay structures that allow for more competitive compensation through pay banding.

Research conducted by

Kirsten M. Keller, Ginger Groeber, Philip Armour, Jenna W. Kramer, Shirley M. Ross, Diana Y. Myers, Hannah Acheson-Field, Samantha E. DiNicola, Shreyas Bharadwaj, Stephanie Williamson

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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