Defense Labs Hustle To Regain Wireless Expertise

Sept. 1, 2003
Are you a former defense professional? Maybe you worked for the Department of Defense (DoD) or one of the many contractors that support the U.S. military complex. Most wireless-systems engineers started their professional careers on defense-related...

Are you a former defense professional? Maybe you worked for the Department of Defense (DoD) or one of the many contractors that support the U.S. military complex. Most wireless-systems engineers started their professional careers on defense-related projects. This fact is hardly surprising when one considers that most of today's commercial wireless products are direct descendants of secret military programs (see "Wireless Roots Pay Off For Military," Wireless Systems Design, Sept. 2002, p. 17).

But is the defense community still a hotbed for wireless innovation? Or has the growth of the wireless commercial market drained the military of its expertise? Of course, the government's spending budget for military programs has always been cyclical. But even in these tough economic times, there is still a demand for wireless expertise. How can the national labs compete with the private sector for needed engineers and scientists?

I remember one program that was very successful in attracting and retaining key personnel in the labs. It was a program in which I participated after graduating from college in the early '80s. Located on a remote naval research lab in the Mojave Desert, the DoD's China Lake complex provided new hires with a unique opportunity to explore different types of projects. During my first year at China Lake, I took part in the Junior Professional (JP) program. This program allowed me to rotate within the technical community. For three- to six-month intervals, I worked on totally different types of projects. I could've cut my teeth on printed-circuit-board (PCB) and application-specific integrated-circuit (ASIC) designs; RF-microwave antenna development; telemetry systems for lab and aircraft-based projects; or even geothermal-power electrical systems. For a young engineer just out of school, it was a world full of possibilities.

Equally impressive was the aggressive pay scale that tracked closely with those in the commercial sector. The pay scale at the naval China Lake facility rose quickly once the traditional Government-Scale (GS) system was replaced by a trimmed down, more flexible demonstration-project (DP) pay scale. The DoD labs that participated in the DP program could easily acquire, promote, and retain technical expertise.

Are such programs still available in the defense community? The answer is yes. In fact, the Air Force has recently been experimenting with a program that is a direct descendant of the Navy's DP program. By using a combination of simplified classification and pay banding, the Air Force's Demonstration Project gives managers greater flexibility in hiring the right technical personnel.

Actually, the Air Force's experiments may even go beyond China Lake's efforts. According to Michelle Neuner, a Program Analyst in the Air Force Research Lab, the program provides an even more flexible pay-setting system. The program also allows promotions between bands as part of the annual appraisal process. Neuner notes that the Air Force Lab Demo—like China Lake—has had success in retaining high-quality scientists and engineers.

Many factors have aided the defense community's recruitment and retention of technical experts. For example, the commercial world's ongoing technology recession has increased the pool of available prospects. Also, the Air Force has earmarked nearly a third of a billion dollars over the next seven years. This money will support the reshaping of its technological workforce.

The issues of displaced professionals and timely funding have been complemented by recent legislation. This legislation allows the national laboratories to experiment with alternative personal-management systems for civilians and engineers.

The rise in funding and the renewed support for government labs bodes well for the wireless community as a whole. As Michelle Neuner explains, the Air Force is investigating how the current and future use of wireless communication systems will impact the security and availability of our information. She says, "The Air Force is installing and operating wireless systems at bases and installations worldwide. The race to design and achieve an assured, secure, and reliable wireless infrastructure is a high priority. The Air Force and other DoD agencies will be competing with industry and academia for scientists and engineers with the necessary expertise."

Just like successful commercial companies, the government is renewing its investment in key wireless technical experts. The design projects that receive support today seem destined to become the future generations of wireless technology. Please share your thoughts or experiences with me at [email protected].

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