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Program encourages STEM scholars to pursue Air Force careers

  • Published

By Erica Becvar
Career Field Management analyst

United States employment projections show there is likely to be a shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, professionals in the future. Specific to the U.S. Air Force, approximately 40 percent of Air Force STEM civilians are older than 50, and recent studies show that the Air Force personnel system might not provide a sufficient inventory of STEM-degreed personnel. 

The Air Force Civil Engineering Directorate itself will face a new host of complex engineering and installation support problems. Collectively, a perfect storm of workforce challenges is brewing. It includes the impending retirement of much of the Air Force STEM workforce; low college-readiness rates and interest in STEM majors; and challenges that the Air Force, like its sister services, faces in recruiting and retaining high-quality STEM talent in a competitive environment. 

In a 2012 posture statement, the Air Force set forth to ensure it would carefully and proactively manage its STEM workforce and improve  methods to attract and recruit future innovators. The next year, the 2013 Air Force Diversity Strategic Roadmap set forth a mission to attract high-quality, talented, diverse individuals to consider Air Force employment. The roadmap established a priority to “position the Air Force as an ‘employer of choice’ and attract top talent (competent, qualified and diverse) … consistent with Air Force requirements such as STEM.” 

This was reinforced in 2014 by a Rand Corp. report that recommended the Air Force continue to promote and increase programs that encourage STEM recruiting and retention for civil service positions. A diversified STEM talent pool would help keep up with technology advancements and enable the Air Force to avoid technological surprises. Innovative and technically savvy Airmen are essential to continued mission execution success since STEM is a part of every mission.

Full STEM ahead

Air Force senior leaders are recognizing and supporting the need for investment in STEM recruitment and retention: 

  • Former Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said, “Strategic management of Airmen is the cornerstone of our future, and STEM Airmen will play an ever-increasing role in our success.” 
  • Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, in a March 2015 address in Washington, reinforced the need to obtain top talent, to back up the claim of being the “'World's Greatest Air Force.” 
  • Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated in a speech at George Washington University that the Air Force will work to improve and enhance college internship programs to increase the likelihood of interns receiving full-time placement within the Department of Defense: “With more young Americans pursuing internships today, it is imperative that we are leveraging this talent pool to attract future talent to the civilian workforces as many other agencies have done.”
  • Former Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley said STEM education is a challenge for the entire country.“While the Air Force has been more successful than other services in recruiting scientists and engineers, the military as a whole needs to appeal to a sense of service and patriotism to recruit the best talent.” 

The 2014 Rand report also examined sources of information on the need for STEM degrees. It postulated that as technologies change over time, the education requirements for STEM-degreed civilians will change accordingly. The report found that only two Air Force career fields are systematically reviewing these future needs and altering requirements to meet them. One was Air Force Civil Engineering. Indeed, to build the strength and talent of the CE career field and prepare to meet STEM challenges, CE is focusing on recruitment. Examples of existing tools employed by the CE career field are the Pathways Recent Graduate and PALACE Acquire Intern programs, which recruit recent college graduates into the CE workforce. The career field has also supported its civilian members through tuition assistance for current CE civilian employees. 
In addition to these program, CE began participating in a new program this year; the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, or SMART program. 

Getting SMART

Managed by the office of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, the SMART program awards highly competitive scholarships-for-service to undergraduate and graduate students in 19 academic STEM disciplines and moves graduates directly into the DOD’s workforce after graduation. Internships engage SMART scholars in hands-on work experiences at DOD facilities, thereby enhancing their educational experience and building a public service commitment to DOD’s mission. SMART ensures that DOD has a steady infusion of high-quality U.S. technical talent, prepared in areas of critical importance, ready to apply their technical knowledge, skills and abilities to fulfill our military’s mission.

Organizations can use SMART to recruit students into the DOD or advance the education of current employees. In exchange for SMART funding, students are committed to working one year for each academic year funded by SMART. Students who are funded for more than one academic year complete internships during the summers between academic years. Participation in the SMART program is completed in three phases: degree pursuit, service commitment and graduate monitoring. Since 2007, annual funding for the program has ranged from $8.2 million to $45 million, with the number of students graduating from the program ranging from 26 to 98 per year. 

The SMART program places special emphasis on the STEM areas. These include biosciences; physiology; chemistry; cognitive, neural and behavioral sciences; psychology; computer and computational sciences; geosciences; information sciences; materials science; mathematics; operations research; and physics. Engineering fields include aeronautical and astronautical; aerospace; chemical; civil; electrical; industrial and systems; mechanical; and nuclear.

Participating in the SMART program holds many benefits for a sponsoring organization. It can hand-pick SMART applicants or current employees to fill personnel needs now and in the future. The nationwide applicant pool traditionally includes very competitive students. For example, the average grade point average for 2015 was 3.5. Sponsoring organizations can groom participants over time through the SMART mentoring program and yearly internships. Internships allow sponsoring organizations to orient participants with the organization, and the SMART program facilitates a positive transition into full-time employment. There is no cost to the sponsoring organization during the first phase of the program. In addition, selected students receive a secret-level security clearance upon completion of the program.

SMART students enjoy many program benefits. They are not limited in college choices; full tuition is provided at any accredited college or university in the U.S. Students are given an annual living allowance of $25,000 to $38,000 along with paid summer internships. Health insurance is provided as well as a book allowance of $1,000 per academic year. Organizations with current DOD employees who receive SMART scholarships are reimbursed for the employee’s salary on a graduated scale, based on degree level the employee is pursuing. The sponsoring organization provides mentoring upon participant selection, and graduates are placed as full-time employees at the sponsoring organization. Graduating students who are current Air Force employees either return to their duty stations or are outplaced to an appropriate position.

Organizations participating in the SMART program identify requirements by degree level and by discipline or degree. Each requirement that a sponsoring organization submits must consist of a commitment to provide a summer internship assignment, a mentor and a commitment to place SMART participants in a permanent position upon graduation. Sponsoring organizations must also participate in the review and selection of SMART applicants as well as an online SMART orientation for selected students.

A SMART start

The SMART program seeks individuals with the appropriate drive and technical background combined with a desire to serve their country. 
Program participants:

  • Can be existing college students or current Air Force employees (government service or wage grade). 
  • Must be 18 years or older and be a U.S. citizen. 
  • Must be eligible to obtain and maintain at least a secret clearance (top secret if required by the sponsoring organization). Students must be geographically mobile (usually this means within any of the 50 states) for placement in DOD within relevant career fields after graduation. 
  • Must have at least a 3.0 out of a 4.0 GPA to be accepted into the program and must maintain at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA for the degree funded

The overall SMART program takes approximately one year to complete, from the application phase to the hiring process. The call for applications is in early August and closes early December, with candidates submitting applications online at The number of SMART participants is subject to the availability of funds and the evaluation of candidates is based on a review of academic records, personal statements, recommendation letters and graduate record examination scores (for graduate students only). 

The selection of participants is made in January, with award notification in April. Selectees have one week to accept or reject a SMART scholarship offer after official notification.  The online orientation of selectees occurs in July before school begins. Internships occur during the summer and last for 10 to 12 weeks. Graduation can be in the summer or fall, with hiring occurring within 60 days of graduation. 

Getting smart about SMART

For more information about the SMART program, visit The program point of contact is Ed Bujan, AFPC/DPIBE,, 210-565-1775, DSN 665-1775. Questions specific to the CE career field can be directed to   

Editor’s Note: Becvar, the SMART point of contact for the CE career field, serves on the CE Career Field Team as the career field management analyst for CE Career Field Manager Gerald Johnson and for Chairman of the CE Development Team and CE Functional Advisory Council Edwin Oshiba.