The evolution of the internet has begun transforming society from a planet of nations and individuals to a global interconnected digital culture. Yesterday’s pilots, engineers and scientists, born in an analog environment, are giving way to a generation raised in a digital world of coders, computer engineers and gamers. The U.S. Air Force depends heavily on the digital generation to keep its technological advantage. Yet the Air Force must compete with private tech companies like Google and SpaceX in order to recruit the nation’s best minds to deal with tomorrow’s problems and provide needed innovation. ROTC students and Air Force advisors from Cornell University shed light on the digital dilemma the military is now facing as recruiting becomes more strategic and cultural in the 21st century.(U.S. Air Force video by Andrew Arthur Breese)
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein admitted the service has been fighting a war with outdated tactics. Not a war in some foreign land, but one within the nation’s own borders.
The field of battle is the open market. The objective: convince some of the most innovative minds in the country — those trained in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — to work for the Air Force.
“I absolutely align with Secretary (of Defense Ashton) Carter that we are in a war for talent and one of the initiatives that is under his ‘Force of the Future’ allows us to go directly to a university and hire talent from that university,” Goldfein testified. “What we have done in the past is to tell those that are interested in joining us to go ahead and get on USA Jobs, post all their resumes and maybe we’ll get back to them in six months; (by then) they’re gone. It’s unacceptable in this environment.”
The order of battle proposed by Carter looks to streamline hiring practices to position the Defense Department as a hotbed for scientific research talent. It also has new tactics that include opening the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in California’s Silicon Valley, building cooperation between the military and tech companies, and career intermission programs that allow military researchers to get a taste of the research being pursued at private companies. The defense secretary has even invited vetted hackers to test the Pentagon’s cybersecurity.
These new tactics are designed to keep control of territory already held: retaining STEM talent currently employed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). By allowing Air Force researchers more latitude in their research and flexibility in career paths, the hope is that job satisfaction will increase and, therefore, retention.
It’s a tactic that has kept Ryan Helbach, a hypersonic engineer for AFRL at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, studying Supersonic Combustion Ramjet technology for the Air Force.
“I was thinking of leaving the Air Force, but after talking with friends and coworkers I realized I have a fantastic opportunity here in the Air Force and the Air Force Research Labs to shape my job,” he said. “I get to do the engineering, but I also get to create programs that have a lot of influence on the careers of other scientists and engineers that work within the research labs.”
Create he has. Helbach is involved in two programs designed to increase workplace satisfaction among his peers and build bridges between AFRL and the private sector.
“We have set up this program called the Intellect to Intellect (i2i) Exchange where we are working with a number of different (smaller private tech) companies to try to take some of our folks that are working with deep learning or autonomy or robotics and embed them (with those companies),” Helbach said. “We want to work with them and tap into some of those innovative technologies that we are not working on currently or that we are working on, but we could tap into some different ideas.”
Helbach has also co-created the AFRL Entrepreneurial Program, which allows for scientists and engineers to pursue personal business projects utilizing AFRL technology through one-year sabbaticals. If the technology is successfully commercialized, they can separate from AFRL to pursue the venture with an agreement that they can return within five years. If the project shows no promise, they can return to their old jobs at the end of the sabbatical year.
The Air Force is also fighting this battle on another front — the nation’s schools. To create a constant stream of new technological talent flowing toward AFRL, the Air Force must educate students to the scientific opportunities that exist at its research labs before they choose an employer or career path.
In this challenge, the Air Force has achieved some pockets of success within the geographical spheres of influence surrounding bases hosting research labs. In these geographical areas, STEM outreach programs are plentiful and assisted by word of mouth and familial ties to the Air Force.
“I come from a family of nerds and we are a family of military nerds… I was genetically predetermined to be a nerd,” said Cassandra Stanfill, a human factors engineer at AFRL who uses eye-tracking technology and other methods to measure the physical response and stress of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance analysts.
She grew up near Wright-Patterson AFB with a mother who was active-duty Army, and later became a statistician, and a father who was active-duty Air Force and a human factors engineer.
Growing up in a military culture and having the inside scoop on AFRL ingrained in her some of the big selling points of doing research for the Air Force.
“The research labs have a multitude of things you can study and work on and you get job security here, which is difficult to find right now,” Stanfill said. “There is so much we can do here that can make an impact. When our Airman can do their jobs more effectively, more efficiently, it helps secure the freedoms and the privileges that we enjoy. I work with cool stuff, I make a difference and I have job that I know I am safe in.”
Second Lt. Scott Seidenberger was commissioned May 28, 2016, the day he graduated with a degree from the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Before reporting for air battle management training at Tyndall AFB, Florida, he and his dissertation committee are editing his thesis, titled “Can the Government and Military Compete with Private Sector Companies for Technical Talent?” in hopes of it being published in a leading academic journal of human resource management.
His research, which probes how technical job seekers evaluate opportunities in different sectors and with different firms, sheds light on one of the main obstacles to luring STEM talent away from the warm, for-profit glow of Silicon Valley; so much of what the Air Force Research Labs do is classified, producing few commercial products that civilians use in their daily lives.
“It’s called the Halo Effect… So we all use products from Google, Apple and Microsoft day to day and a lot of us evaluate those products favorably,” said Seidenberger. “So there is a spillover effect where we are much more likely to subconsciously think ‘Hmmm… Google must be a good employer’… the defense sector struggles with this effect because most young people do not interact with the defense sector on a day-to-day basis; they are not as familiar with the products and the services that we provide. That’s the challenge for us, trying to build an employer brand and an image for ourselves that is able to compete with the private sector.”
The Air Force is attempting to promote the selling points at universities and conferences far from the gate of an Air Force base. The Air Force Diversity and Inclusion office, in coordination with Air Force Recruiting Service, AFRL, U.S. Air Force Academy and Air Force Civilian Service, has developed a nationwide recruiting effort at STEM-focused professional conferences that attract a large number of students.
Also, programs do exist to reach college undergraduates, such as the AFRL Scholars program, the Minority Leaders Research Collaboration Program and the Pathways Internship Program. However, getting the word out about research opportunities in the Air Force on STEM-heavy campuses, not adjacent to a base, is often limited to an occasional job fair. On that battlefield, the service must fight for attention in a hall surrounded by the glitz of consumer tech company recruiters armed with a well-known brand, workplaces that resemble playgrounds and better pay and benefits.
In 2014, AFRL sought to improve its visibility with STEM undergraduates by initiating the University Relations Program to establish formal relationships with the country’s prominent technical universities and visit as many as possible during the year. Members of the AFRL senior executive service and senior scientists assist with maintaining and growing these relationships, according to Kevin Gooder, chief of the program integration division for the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
However, any influence the Air Force gains during the rest of the semester is largely dependent on the presence of personnel pursuing advanced degrees and the service’s emphasis on volunteerism within its ranks. The service’s STEM workforce strategy, Bright Horizons, was signed by former CSAF Gen. Mark A. Welsh, who encouraged all Airmen to “embrace the innovation culture, participate in education and training endeavors and continue to be Air Force STEM ambassadors in your communities.”
Capt. Kevin W. O’Brien, the operations flight commander for ROTC Detachment 520 at Cornell University, was one of Seidenberger’s instructors. O’Brien not only teaches AFROTC classes at Cornell, but, with Air Force funding, is also pursuing his Ph.D. in morphing wing technology there. His doctoral research allows him to rub shoulders with civilian undergraduate engineering students who are often surprised to see an Air Force officer getting a technical Ph.D. at an Ivy League institution.
O’Brien also volunteers in the engineering community on campus by assisting an undergraduate project team building a robotic rover to compete in the University Rover Challenge held each summer at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. For the team members, working with their de-facto faculty advisor was their first contact with a military member in the STEM field.
“I lived in the eastern New York City suburbs and went to high school in Connecticut,” said team member Nicole Polemeni-Hegarty, a rising junior at Cornell majoring in mechanical engineering, and currently an intern at Lockheed Martin working in a lasers and sensors lab. “I had never seen anything in high school about the possibility of doing scientific research or engineering in the Air Force. Until I met Capt. O’Brien, I had not even gotten a whiff of doing an internship with the military. Now the Air Force and DOD are definitely on my radar.”
However, O’Brien thinks the Air Force should be placing scientific ambassadors at centers of technologic education.
In 2014, AFRL established the University Relations Program to establish formal relationships with the country’s prominent technical universities and visit as many as possible during the year. Members of the AFRL Senior Executive Service and senior scientists assist with maintaining and growing these relationships.
O’Brien said another hindrance to attracting STEM talent to uniformed service is the rigor, regimentation and rigidity of the military, especially the rank structure.
“It’s possible that you could be coming out of college and be more competent and qualified than a major and, at that point, you have to wait up to 10 to 12 years until you are able to make the same impact as they are,” O’Brien said.
The Air Force is currently exploring options in certain career fields to address these issues for uniformed researchers, according to Gooder.
Even if the Air Force changes its very culture to elevate its appeal on college campuses, it may be too little, too late. AFRL researchers believe that reaching farther back into the educational system to influence younger STEM students is key to establishing a long-term pipeline of a diverse research talent headed
While individual STEM outreach programs that send scientists and engineers into local high schools and primary schools have existed at Air Force bases for decades, the service did not begin to coordinate its battle plan until three years ago, with the formation of the STEM Outreach Office at Wright-Patterson AFB to coordinate the programs at 30 bases in the U.S. and overseas.
“One of the first things that needed to be done was to get our arms around the activities that were already happening out there,” said Richard Baker, director for Air Force K-12 STEM Outreach. “We get the obstacles out of their way and provide them the resources that they need to help enhance the programs that they are already doing… and to point them all in generally the same direction from a
Baker says that getting to kids in middle school is “the sweet spot” for STEM outreach. At this tween-age, students with an overall interest in pursuing science and math start to really consider what they want to be when they grow up.
Sending Air Force engineers into local classes to work with teachers on establishing rocketry or solar car projects not only excites the students, but it also makes them aware of national-level partner programs like the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot to engage computer students, the StellarXplorers to encourage the study of space and the Air Force-sponsored Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
To reach back even farther in the educational process, Baker’s office supports partnerships with outside programs to develop STEM students. Programs like FIRST LEGO League Junior, FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and FIRST Robotics Competition are DOD embraced programs and provided grant monies to build teams of students to participate in local and national tournaments. Tournaments and teams organized and run by Air Force employees promote awareness of the service’s emphasis on science to parents and kids who come to base-hosted tournaments.
In FLL, children construct robots made of LEGOs and learn to program those robots to perform certain tasks, like carrying a small object to a specific area, dropping it there and returning to its starting point. Many of the kids go on to FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge, using other materials to build more complex robots with more sophisticated programming.
Samuel Snowden, 9, who is homeschooled, loves his pets, baseball and reading magazines, has a special place in his world for LEGOs. When he learned about FLL and that he could make those LEGOs move and follow his commands, he was hooked.
“I was born with a Lego in my hand… then I realized that when you get into FIRST LEGO League you get to build and program robots,” Snowden said. “I thought it sounded challenging and I like things that are challenging and I also thought I might like to program sometime in my life.”
Samuel’s experience at a weeklong FLL program hosted by Wright-Patterson AFB, ended with the teams’ robots going Lego-to-Lego in a tournament complete with cheerleading mentors, a public address announcer, loud music and goofy hats. However, building and programming a winning robot is just the hook for achieving FLL’s ultimate goals: teaching teamwork and understanding that the scientific process is all about learning from failed experiments and finding new ways to solve a problem.
“I think FIRST (Lego League) is really cool and even though the robot is really fun, you shouldn’t focus on that,” he said. “You should focus on learning the First Core Values: We have fun. We are a team. We display gracious professionalism in all we do. Our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together as a team.”
Samuel did admit that while FLL was great fun, he had previously learned about the Air Force through its most tried and true recruiting tools: family ties and cool planes.
“My brother is actually in the Air Force. When I was 4 years old I thought about going into the Air Force,” he said. “I would probably want to fly F-16 (Fighting Falcon), because they are my favorite plane.”
If the whole pilot thing doesn’t work out for Samuel, the seed has been planted through STEM outreach and FLL that he can, one day, work for the Air Force, just like his brother, as a scientist or engineer. Maybe he will even design and program systems for an aircraft way cooler than the F-16.