Air Force keeps tech force fresh

Like many federal agencies, the Air Force Research Laboratory faces a dilemma:

How does it keep fresh ideas perking in the organization amid onrushing

technology development and personnel turmoil brought about by an aging work

force and the lure of the private sector?

During the next decade, about one-third of the AFRL's staff of more

than 5,500 high-tech civilian government workers will reach retirement age.

Meanwhile, the speed of the common desktop computer will likely have doubled

six times. The combination of those two trends alone represents a dangerous

formula for any agency tasked with staying ahead of the technological power

curve.

But the AFRL, which has its headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force

Base, Ohio, has devised a new model for the 21st century work force that

promises to keep the lab on the cutting edge and fend off personnel crises.

They call it the GOCA model — or Government Operated, Collaborator Assisted

model.

Full-time federal employees will make up the "GO" component of GOCA

and will provide the lab and its 10 research directorates with high-level

management and technical leadership, continuity of management and corporate

memory, according to the lab's commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Dick Paul.

The collaborator component, Paul said, could consist of a cadre of visiting

university professors, temporary or term government experts, post-doctoral

students or experts from industry and nonprofit organizations.

"The idea is that each [component] has its own unique advantages, and

when you combine them together, it gives you the most powerful work force,"

Paul said. Part-time and temporary collaborators "bring the advantage of

agility [and] fresh technical knowledge," he said. "You need to keep flowing

fresh ideas in and out. It makes [the] strongest possible technical work

force."

The plan, which the lab announced this month through an industrywide

request for information, appears to go hand in hand with the lab's vision

of maintaining "the best people providing the best technologies for the

world's best Air Force."

But there will be challenges. One message that Paul doesn't want people

to get from this plan is that the GOCA model is a road to reducing the cost

of operating the lab. At best, "I look at it as a cost-neutral operation,"

Paul said.

It may actually cost more to use the best talent, he said, but the higher

cost of better talent will be offset by the gradual attrition of the lab's

full-time work force. Today, it operates with a staff that is split almost

evenly between full-time government employees and "collaborator" scientists

and engineers. The plan is to gradually increase the collaborator population

by about 5 percent to 10 percent so that there is a 60/40 mix of collaborators

and government workers.

"They will have to work a win-win arrangement where contractors provide

very highly qualified scientists to work with the government core," said

Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. "The key

will be to find out what is of value to the contractors. There has to be

something of considerable value in it for them to provide [the] level of

individual the government desires to work on collaborative efforts," he

said.

That's exactly Paul's vision for the program. "We're looking for the

highest quality collaborators that we can find [who have] recognized technical

repute in their technology discipline," he said. "We realize we're going

to have to pay for it."

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