By Steven Donald Smith
ANAHEIM, Calif., Oct. 7, 2006 – Officials from the Defense Department and military services converged on the 18th Annual Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference here yesterday to help spread the word about the multitude of civilian career opportunities they offer in the sciences.
"There's a big misconception out there that the military only hires people in uniform, we need to dispel that rumor," said Oscar "Leo" Alvarado, director of electronic warfare systems at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. "You can service without wearing the uniform."
Hiring young civilian scientists and engineers is vital to the long-term health of the military, Ed Bujan, program manager for the Air Force's civilian scientist and engineering recruiting program, said.
"We need you," Bujan told a group of Hispanic high school and college students during an Air Force seminar at the conference Oct. 6. "The things you will do will help sustain the military and the country. It's more than just a job."
Bujan, who recently retired from the Air Force after 24 years in uniform, said with all the turmoil in the world today the U.S. military needs scientists and engineers "to help develop and continue to further our technological programs that help the troops."
The Air Force recruits civilians similar to the way it recruits uniform personnel, he said. "We have recruiters who are scientists and engineers go out to college fairs, pick out resumes and hire based on how many slots we have to fill in the science and engineering field," he said. "We've done well."
Events like HENAAC, which takes place every year during Hispanic Heritage Month, provide a needed avenue to recruit underserved communities. "What HENAAC offers is the opportunity to talk to minority folks, which is something the Air Force is really interested in," Bujan said. "Hispanics make up a large percentage of our population, and we need to be able to get them involved in these jobs."
"Without participation in conferences like HENAAC, the private sector has a foothold in getting their name and product out there," added Alvarado, a 20-year Air Force civilian employee.
HENAAC was established in 1989 with the mission to promote the achievements of Hispanics in engineering, science, technology and math, and to motivate more students to pursue careers in these fields. This year HENAAC is honoring Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, with its "Role Model of Year" award.
An added bonus of working for the military is education, Bujan said. For instance, DoD offers further education opportunities for scientists and engineers through its Science, Math, and Research for Transformation scholarship program. SMART is part of an effort to improve the flow of new, highly skilled technical labor into DoD laboratories and agencies and to enhance the technical skills of the workforce already in place. The program offers scholarships and fellowships to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students who have a demonstrated ability and special aptitude in the sciences.
"With the aging workforce in government and the private sector there is a very big gap between the baby boomers, who are soon to retire, and this young generation," Alvarado said. "We need young civilian scientists and engineers to replace this aging workforce."
One of the biggest challenges the military faces is a high turnover rate among its scientists. Many young people use the military as a stepping-stone to private sector opportunities, Alvarado said. "We're trying to find people who want to make the Air Force a career," he said. "For the last 10 years we've had a steady inflow of people coming in, but at the same time we've suffered a lot of attrition."
The Air Force is increasing the pace of its hiring practices to keep up with this problem, he said. In addition, Alvarado said he finds that more young people are eager to serve their country than in the recent past.
"We have quite a few young people who come to us and say, 'hey, we want to do our part,'" he said. "The uniform may not be something they want to put on, but they still want to help out. And science is a way to do it."