Air Force to offer buyouts to 6,000 civilians

Thursday - 9/22/2011, 6:16am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Air Force will offer buyouts to thousands of its non-uniformed employees, the service announced Wednesday.

The voluntary separation payments, combined with early retirement incentives, are the service's latest steps to shrink the size of its civilian workforce and are based on the Defense Department's overarching civilian hiring freeze.

The Air Force, like other Defense services and agencies, must keep its civilian government employee staffing levels in line with what it was allowed in fiscal 2010. That translates into a number of positions that's almost 9 percent lower than what the Air Force's previous planning had projected.

"We're now going to not recognize some of that growth, but we knew that there were important missions in that growth expectation that we still need to do," said Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel.

The Air Force will try to recalibrate its civilian staffing levels through both voluntary early retirement authority (VERA) and voluntary separation incentive pay (VSIP) programs.

The Air Force is prepared to give voluntary separation incentive payments to up to 6,005 civilian employees.

"That allows you to free up a position as you're rebalancing the force," Jones said. "You want to be able to go in and incentivize people who are retirement-eligible. You want to use all these voluntary programs that allow you to reshape your force without any adverse action to the overall Air Force. It's one early step in our plans to start reshaping the force and make sure we have the right individuals in the right specialties."

The VERA and VSIP programs are in addition to a 90-day civilian hiring freeze the service announced a month ago. The Air Force already has started surveying its workers for interest in the buyouts and early-outs, and is trying to target the surveys so that they bring in the necessary volunteers without promising more buyouts than the Air Force can ultimately deliver, officials said.

The Air Force also is trying to reduce the numbers in its uniformed ranks. While its enlisted personnel were roughly on par with legal caps, the service ended fiscal 2010 with 2,000 more officers than it was permitted by Congress. Jones said military services have some ability to encourage uniformed members to leave the service earlier than they normally would have on their own volition, but not much. Most of the reductions on the military side of the Air Force have been involuntary.

But, he said, the Air Force now expects to meet the end strength numbers mandated by Congress by the end of 2012.

"Where that will go from there, we don't know, because there are big budget debates still going on," he said. "But our goal was to get our numbers down. You have to either keep people in and let them stay as long as they want, or make unfortunate, distasteful decisions to ask people to leave before they're ready."

Jones said while the Air Force could theoretically avoid forcing its uniformed personnel out if it were willing to stop bringing in new recruits, it's not a realistic option if the service wants to maintain its pipeline of new talent.

"The last time we did significant force reshaping, the unemployment rate in the country was between four and six percent," he said. "On the one hand, you want to let people stay in until they're ready to get out. But if we don't bring in the new, all-important accessions, we're sacrificing the future capability of the Air Force."