Air Force dangles bonuses to keep contracting officers

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In an effort to keep experienced contracting officers in uniform during a critical period, the Air Force recently approved funding for a sizable bonus program aimed at keeping them from leaving service for more lucrative jobs in the private sector.

The $20,000 bonuses, paid annually for four years, are being offered to commissioned officers with six to 14 years of experience as contracting officers, most of whom have been working what the service calls a 1-to-1 dwell ratio -- they alternate six-month deployments overseas, many to Iraq or Afghanistan, with six months at home.

"We've stressed them out considerably, so we're losing a lot of them," said Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, the military deputy to the Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition.

Earlier this year the service offered retention bonuses to enlisted personnel with critical acquisition skills, he said.

The Air Force, like the Army and Navy, is under pressure to significantly increase the size of its acquisition workforce. At its peak in the late 1980s, the service had more than 43,000 acquisition officials, both civilian and in uniform. In the post-Cold War military drawdown, that number shrank to about 25,000. Under current Defense Department proposals, the Air Force expects to add several thousand acquisition specialists -- contract managers, cost estimators, auditors, program managers, engineers and others -- during the next several years.

To boost the size and competency of the acquisition workforce, the Air Force is pursuing three main tracks: filling existing vacancies, hiring new people, and improving training and education.

Officials at Air Force Materiel Command have worked aggressively to fill vacancies in the organization -- positions that are approved and funded but remain unfilled. In May, the vacancy rate for acquisition positions was 15 percent, far higher than the goal of 5 percent, which takes into account retirements and other normal personnel turnover.

"I don't have specific numbers, but we're making progress in terms of what we call net gain," meaning the service is bringing on more people to fill vacancies than it is losing to attrition, Shackelford said.

In terms of increasing the size of the workforce, the Air Force has requested authority to add 2,062 positions, more than 1,800 of which would be filled by civilian personnel. "We're now hiring interns and journeymen, mid-level positions if you will," he said. "We're [starting] that now, ramping up to fill those positions between 2010 and 2013."

Using expedited hiring authority granted by Congress, the Air Force already has hired about 300 people, he said.

In addition, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last spring his intention to increase the department's acquisition workforce by 20,000 people. The Air Force's share would be 4,865 new people, Shackelford said.

Service leaders are working with officials at the Defense Department to figure out how to meet that goal. "Obviously, you've got to put in your budget sufficient funds to pay the people you hire," Shackelford said.

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