Commander Reflects on Lost Jobs, Air Force's Future

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

The largest command at Wright-Patterson has cut more than a third of its headquarters positions in the past three years, an outgoing Air Force Materiel Command senior executive said.

Michael A. Gill, executive director of the Air Force Materiel Command, said he believes the jobs picture has stabilized at AFMC headquarters but added there is no guarantee more cuts won't happen with the lingering threat of sequestration.

AFMC headquarters eliminated 586 jobs, many of which officials said were vacant, and now has just more than 1,010 employees inside the main building at Wright-Patterson.

"I think we are at a point that we can stabilize now," Gill said. "In this business you can never say never because you don't always know what the future will hold.

"...With the budget challenges that we have and still have with the Budget Control Act hanging out there, I can't predict where we're going to be" in future years.

The son of a former Air Force staff sergeant and a civil service worker, Gill will cap a 34-year career that started as a contract specialist at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. He leaves as the top civil service leader -- equivalent to a three-star general -- at AFMC, a civilian-dominated workforce of 80,000 employed primarily at eight major bases to develop, buy and maintain Air Force weapon systems.

The 59-year-old Macon, Ga., native retires April 1; a successor has not been named.

Senior executive in the ranks

In an interview, Gill spoke about labor management relations, a rise in spending on small business contracts, and acquisition reforms.

In one of the biggest changes in years, Gill was one of the leaders who oversaw the consolidation of 12 centers into five -- which later grew to six. The command cut 1,000 management positions in the transition. He also was at the helm when the "tough" times of sequestration led to immediate budget cuts and employee furloughs nearly three years ago.

Labor management relations are key "because if we don't have sound labor management relations then it will be ... a big mess, and that's not good for anybody."

AFMC leaders and high-level union leaders regularly met in partnership council meetings to talk about issues employees face, one labor official said.

"He's personable, for one thing, and he's a good listener, and he's willing to make decisions and act on issues that are before us jointly," said Thomas C. Robinson, executive assistant at the American Federation of Government Employees Council 214. The council represents more than 6,000 Wright-Patterson workers.

"We do disagree on things, but that's healthy," Gill said. "It creates dialog, it creates the understanding of each others' positions, but in the end we always end up with the solutions we both can live with and that we think are best for our people."

Acquisition reforms

As costs for Defense Department weapon systems programs have spiraled upward and delays have turned into years in the case of programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Congress has pushed for acquisition reforms.

Gill said reforms to "bend the cost curve" -- such as working with industry to cut costs, finding ways to reduce expenses in maintenance depots and supply chains, using technology to become more efficient and changing the personnel system -- were meant to improve the process.

In one of those measures, about 13,000 AFMC employees -- including more than 2,600 at Wright-Patterson -- will switch to the Department of Defense Civilian Acquisition Workforce Demonstration Project, or AcqDemo. The change next June will remove mostly non-union, professional and supervisory employees out of the general schedule classification and pay system and place them into a merit-based pay and evaluation system.

"We will be the largest component using acquisition demonstration in the Department of Defense," he said. "We've learned a lot of lessons."

Acquisition reform has been a decades-long priority, he said.

"... Throughout my career, that's all we have focused on is how do we improve our efficiency and effectiveness and reduce our footprint relative to the acquisition process because, I'll admit it's complicated, it probably takes too long, people get frustrated, they get upset, they don't understand it," he said.

"... And this isn't just on AFMC or the Air Force; industry has to be a partner in that," he said. "They're the ones actually executing the work."

Affording a future Air Force

The Air Force has on its radar purchases of the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, a yet-to-be-unveiled futuristic bomber, along with a new jet trainer, combat rescue helicopter and the Boeing 747-8 as the next presidential jet.

So many multi-billion dollar programs will strain the Air Force's budget, raising questions if it can afford to buy everything.

"I think that's part of what we and the Congress have to think through. Where do we put our resources and what can this country afford?" he said. "That's the million dollar question. What can we afford, or said another way, what do we really need in order to meet the mission?

"The question is what's the right size for the threat that we see or the mission this country wants to take on, and that's above my pay grade making that determination," he said.

His advice to his successor: take care of employees, "embrace the local community because they are embracing you," and focus on the relationship between labor and management.

"If I'm not treating (employees) properly and creating an environment for them to flourish and bring those ideas forward and taking care of them, then I'm not going to have ... good results," he said.

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