Air Force keeps tech force fresh
- By Dan Verton
- Feb 20, 2000
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
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
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
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,"
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
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."