A 21 year journey in Strategic Workforce Planning for the U.S. Air Force with Colonel Patrick J. White


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Introducing Colonel Patrick J White
Kath Hume Host 01:01
Patrick J White is a Colonel in the United States Air Force and is currently the Director of the Office of Labor and Economic Analysis located at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, USA. Pat leads a research center responsible providing labour and economic analysis and insights to inform an Air and Space Force workforce design that attracts employees and contains over 700,000 total Air and Space professionals in a competitive labour market. He and his team focus on the application of labour and econometric analysis to understand the impacts of policy and incentive structures on the behaviour of airmen and guardians. Overall, Pat has over 21 years of experience in the strategic workforce planning and people analytics sphere. Patrick, I think that would have to be a record. What do you think? Have you ever met someone with longer history or strategic workforce planning than you?
Patrick White Guest 01:59
Well, I have actually. If you think about the workforce planners in the Air Force, we have officers such as myself, we have enlisted members who we call the real brains, and then we have civilians government civilians. Fortunately for us as an Air Force, many of our folks in uniform, they enjoy it so much that when they transition out of uniform, they go into a government civilian capacity. And so, quite frankly, there are many folks who’ve done a portion of what I’ve done, that have been doing it for quite longer.
Kath Hume Host 02:29
And I guess with the workforce of over 700,000, there’s probably been a bit of thinking that’s had to go on in the past.
Patrick White Guest 02:36
Thinking and, I would say, continuous learning for sure.
Kath Hume Host 02:39
So on that, would you mind telling us a little bit about your career to date, including your current role?
Patrick White Guest 02:45
Sure Well, first thanks, Kath, for having me when I listened to you and your guests. I continue to learn a lot, so it’s my honour to participate with you and share another person’s experience, such as myself, and what I’ll do for my response and responses. I’ll do my best to translate the way we say things, maybe in the military, and try to put it into industry lexicon, because it wouldn’t be fair to listeners to kind of hear the military translation. But my career journey started really in college when I had an opportunity to learn about different career fields in the Air Force and we get a chance to put our dream sheet what do we want to do when we get in the Air Force? When I had the opportunity, I still remember meeting a young officer and we went to his office and we had a chance to visit a base and he talked about what he did. And what he did was equivalent of industrial engineering. What his role was to bring people data and process data and put it together and figure out how many people does that organisation, does that installation, need to do its mission to accomplish the business goals, and I just found it fascinating and what he did was talked about the value of it in the sense that it’s opportunity to leverage data and improve processes and get outcomes, and I just was fascinated by that and I was very fortunate to put that on my list and fortunately I was able to get selected to do that role, and so that got me started on my journey.
And as I think about my journey, Kath, I would say I would characterise it in two different frameworks. One framework is thinking about my experience going from micro problem sets or issues to macro issues when it comes to workforce planning. And then also another framework would be focused on demand analysis, then supply analysis and then integrating all that later on in my journey of my career. And the micro side, for example, think about that as focusing demand analysis on one location. And so my first assignment was at one installation and kind of one key business unit at that installation. In that case it happened to be training fighter pilots and one population, roughly probably 3,000 employees, and so that was the start of my journey of learning really the intricacies of what it takes for that business unit to operate, what are the processes involved and therefore what are the people needs to get that mission done, and I was very fortunate because I was surrounded by great folks that took me under their wing and showed me the way, and a good example of taking someone under their wing, they say a good practitioner in this arena for us was someone who was never at their office. They’re always out and walking the line with the business partners so that you understand what they do, and so the opportunity to understand aircraft maintenance, hospital operations, et cetera, all that workforce dedicated to help train fighter pilots, and so that was kind of the micro example. On the macro, it’s completely obviously the opposite, in that my journey has now come to thinking about enterprise-wide global operations, global locations across the board and bringing it all together, and so that’s micro to macro.
Back to that other framework demand and then supply and then integration. On the demand side, one thing that I learned early on, essentially from a workforce planning perspective, is our responsibility was to build a blueprint of an organisation, the blueprint meaning what are the skills needed, what are the experiences needed to accomplish certain missions or tasks or business lines, and so I think of that as kind of an architecture and that architecture of all the people requirements are aligned in some various organisational structures, and so organisational design formed a key component of my experience of focusing on demand analysis. Interestingly, during my time when I came in the Air Force, we had a dedicated officer career field that only did demand analysis. We were really the key strategic workforce planners in the early 90s and mid 2000s until the mid 2000s when the Air Force decided to merge this dedicated demand analytics sort of a career field in with the broader HR human resource career field. Prior to that, though, we were never aligned with human resource organisationally.
We are always with the planning side of the Air Force, the budgeting side of the Air Force, and that put that strategy, that strategic word, in our roots strategic workforce planning, because we were always thinking about the planning where is the Air Force wanted to go and what’s the workforce to get there and so that demand analysis was really steeped in strategy. And so that that was really important as I look back on my career, to kind of help shape how I think today, because eventually I had the opportunity, and perhaps serendipitously, to go into a supply analytics side of the house, and that was an immense wonderful, wonderful experience to be around what we call operations researchers, basically our modern-day data scientists and be able to partner with them and do people analytics on the human dimension, on the supply side. You know the supply of people to meet all that demand and then ultimately, like I said, culminating over the past couple years as opportunities to integrate that you know both demand and analytics and supply analytics together to try to help make better workforce, broader workforce decisions.
Kath Hume Host 08:10
So, Pat, can you tell us about one or two examples of where you’ve had challenges that you’ve tackled both on the demand and the supply side, and then perhaps, how you’ve integrated demand and supply analytics to tackle the challenges later in your career?
Patrick White Guest 08:25
Sure, and speaking of challenges, I do want to put a disclaimer out there, that the views that I’m going to express today are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defence or the US government. But without a doubt, we see challenges, and so I’ll give it maybe an example that kind of blends all that together. About 12 years ago I was on the supply analytics team, where we think about advising people policymakers. We bring them analytical insights to help shape how they form policies. That was the core mission of that particular team that I was part of, and one of the examples we do. We would model the gains and losses in the force and so, in any given year, how many do we need to bring in and how many are leaving the force? And we try to optimise that and hit particular goals every year. In fact, those goals are set by Congress. It’s a really a ceiling. The United States Congress gives us the authority to have a certain size workforce, and so how do we fine-tune the ins and outs of people throughout their own careers at the end of the year? But one of the things that I noticed, based on my demand experience, was that the organisation that was building the future budget of the Air Force and that future budget included sizing the workforce of the future and as a five-year plan in the Department of Defence is how we do budgeting. But there was an immediate external demand to that directed the Air Force to produce about a thousand additional personnel in a particular skill set. Okay, and I can leave, I’ll stay agnostic to the skill set in this conversation but that external demand signal directed the Air Force to find a way to do trade-offs and grow a thousand more personnel in one year in this really important skill set.
Observing that, what I noticed with this supply analytical background now was the ability for the human capital system in the Air Force, because we’re kind of essentially a one-way in and one-way out in terms of you could get out after your first commitment or you could stay beyond 20 years, but the ability to onboard experienced people to meet that demand, it doesn’t exist. Essentially, okay, and so what I tried to do was inform what we call the corporate structure. I was not in part of the corporate structure. But we have a small group of people that build the budget, the five-year out plan, and they assess all the demands for, for missions and for resource investment and they make choices on what to invest in. And again there was an external source from the Air Force saying you will grow this workforce, you will build this workforce. But the problem is it was they demanded that the growth happen in one year from a demand signal. But the people side, the human capital side, the system could not produce an extra thousand in one year. Because why? Because we have over three hundred and forty different career fields across the Air Force, where every year we’re optimising the ins based on the outs of the people flow, and so we have the ability to give, at one extra career field, an extra thousand comes at the risk of many others. And so one of the observations and the challenges was that is not what we call executable, that is not even achievable to try to grow a thousand plus up above in the normal, normal influx or inflow. And so that was a challenge.
Five years later or so later, I happen to be in one of my assignments was to flow into that corporate structure as the lead workforce planner on the demand side and build that five-year Budget plan of including focus on the workforce sizing, when other folks, my other colleagues, were focusing on, for example, if you can imagine more aircraft, more satellites, more research and development. I was responsible for the workforce and so what one of the things that I did, based on that other lesson, was I absolutely started informing because I was now in that structure. I basically shaped all the asks to make sure that we did not try to create demand signals quote overnight in the budget, because the system was never going to be able to achieve that, and so I would not have thought about that if I had never had that experience on the supply analytic side, and so one of the things that I did after that was one of the other challenges in that arena was the fact that every year in this budget cycle, all the different business units in the Air Force come in and they identify what their needs are, what their resource needs are, and so on.
Any given year we tend to have about 22,000 ish asks for additional people.
So you can imagine we can’t keep growing additional 22,000 people every year, so we have to find trade-offs because again we’re capped by the United States Congress on how many people we can have. And so one of the things in order to counter that was to build a risk-based model that allowed us to prioritise all those asks by aligning those asks to the priorities of quote business, in this case what the Air Force Leadership and what the DoD strategy was for the Air Force.
And so by doing that, I was able to implement this model, which would then allowed the C-suite to decide, of the 22,000, what are the most important, and successfully, we were able to fund the top tier, 4,000 and one year, for example, of the most important, because they were aligned to the business and Kath, what’s interesting in that model was we got back to that executability, the ability for the human capital system to grow the people to meet that demand signal, and that was a key variable in our model that carried a lot of weight because, again, we did not want the corporate structure of the Air Force to go in and buy, for example, a thousand more pilots. If that were the case, if we don’t even have the ability to produce the pilots that quit. And so that’s kind of an example of a challenge of both watching what happens on the demand side, integrating things on the supply side and then bringing it together to try to help the decision makers make better informed decisions.
Kath Hume Host 14:28
I think it’s really important point that you made there around linking it to the strategic priorities and that being the enabler to an executable strategic workforce plan. So I’m interested I don’t want to go too much off script, but I’m interested in knowing why you might separate the two and then look at what strictly demand looks like and what strictly supply looks like. I know that that might seem really obvious to you, but I think our listeners probably would be interested to know what that looks like and how you might go about that.
Patrick White Guest 15:00
Yeah, and one of the beautiful things about the evolution of this strategic workforce planning dynamic here is that today we are much more integrating the supply and demand, because back then remember we were separated, we were not part of the HR function, we are part of the planning function.
In fact, culturally, when I was starting in this business, it was almost like a merit badge to say we are the spaces and not the faces, meaning we focus on the workload, demand signal, the space that someone is assigned into, but then a human being is assigned into it. But that, as I had the opportunity in my journey to focus on the supply side of things, what a horrible culture to have to think, oh, we’re just the left hand, we’re not the right hand, the right hand, someone else does that and we’re never going to think about it. But in fact it’s absolutely critical. And so my experience has been able to help bridge that from an analytical perspective, ultimately to help decision makers think about all of that together because it’s been an evolution. So it started off very disjointed, very bifurcated, and now it’s very much integrated.
Kath Hume Host 16:09
So you mean the people buying the strategic workforce planners?
Patrick White Guest 16:12
Well, the people that we do the analytics that produces, the people that get the job done for the Air Force at large, in other words, the workforce planners that do all the planning. For that. We need people. How many people do we need? What skills? Where are they going to be placed? Where are they going to be assigned? All of that has to be integrated in order to have a better output, and that is recruits coming into the military and having a successful career in their jobs.
Kath Hume Host 16:46
So other guests have talked to me in different ways about strategic workforce planning, so I’m really interested to know what your definition of strategic workforce planning is.
Patrick White Guest 16:55
Sure, I believe it continues to evolve. What is SWP? But first I recognise that important word called P, plan, and so when I think of plan, it’s how to get from here to there via ideas, methods, ultimately to get to execution. And because we’re talking about people and workforce, how do you get a workforce from here to there? Is how I think about SWP, and it really blends some of my experience of thinking about demand, thinking about supply of people. How do you get the people that you need? How do you, in the case of the military, how do you recruit the amount that you need? How do you get them assigned and aligned to different career fields?
And so all that is about trying to get the Air Force to be able to accomplish certain missions and tasks with its people, and that’s the strategic aspect of it in terms of as our missions change. Then how do we think about again, as the missions change, how do we get the people that we have today postured to do the missions as they evolve? Because we know, just like in business, the world’s constantly changing, and so how do you stake and keep up with that? It takes a constant vigilance from an SWP lens to try to make sure that the people and how you grow them, educate them, develop them, train them, etc. Are going to be able to deliver and accomplish the missions. That might be one thing today, but tomorrow could be something else, and so it’s quite a challenging task. But I think that’s why, in my observation, I think SWP has been a constant evolution and just giving you that holistic view.
Kath Hume Host 18:29
I like the way you’ve linked it back to how we achieve strategic priorities and how your work contributes to achieving that.
Patrick White Guest 18:42
I think of a reimagined workforce. I think of it back to that evolution dynamic. I think of it in two ways. We have internal workforce planners in the Air Force. We are reimagining what they do based on the reasons we just talked about. For example, when I came in the Air Force, it was very common for the demand analytics people, the folks, the workforce planners of yesterday, to only think about demand and never thinking about the human aspect of that. And of course that sounds horrific to be thinking like that.
Kath Hume Host 19:13
That sounds really different.
Patrick White Guest 19:15
So we have evolved, fortunately, and today’s planning and planners definitely account for what I call the left hand and the right hand being synchronied. It’s a constant battle though. It’s a constant effort to synchronize because sometimes there’s different objectives Corporately. We might have investment options that we have to always account for the people impacts of those investment options. And I’ll give you an example If we were to take an aircraft that we no longer need and divest that, and if the US Congress allows to divest that and we are going to bring on another airplane that’s going to replace that, there’s often a challenge in that the timing doesn’t work out about the aircraft coming off the assembly line and the divestiture of the aircraft. Now think about the people challenge there. We have maintainers today that focus on one aircraft and they’re trained up and ready in one aircraft, but then we’re not going to get rid of that aircraft at the same time. But yet we’re going to start having new aircraft coming off the assembly line from the defense industry and they’re going to start arriving ow how do you maintain both for a period of time? So that takes a lot of methodical planning and partnership with the business owners, in this case our logisticians and aircraft maintenance functional community to try to time it up and focus on flowing and transferring the people at the right time to be able to, and train them up to be able to get on to the new business unit, if you will. So that’s the internal is thinking about making sure our internal workforce planners are thinking about the left hand, on the right hand, integrating demand and supply analysis.
Now, on the external, I think of a reimagined workforce a something that’s very timely and in fact, this past Monday, kath, the secretary of the Air Force, announced a new change, a new way we’re going to reimagine a portion of our workforce, and what I mean by that is, in the military, the standard career approach or career model is we’re going to bring you in and you’re going to get increased leadership roles as you go on and gain experiences.
So we want to develop leaders. That’s the basic paradigm, absolutely and absolutely critical for what we do. But in the world around us, we know in our version of competition in the military, we have to stay at the forefront of technology even more than we already are. We have a very technical force already, but we also need to realie that maybe we need people that don’t need to be leaders, even though we need their deep technical expertise, and we’re okay with that and we need to embrace that. And so just Monday, like I said, the secretary of the Air Force announced a new plan that we’re going to develop an alternative career path where we’re going to allow some of our technicians to become stay technicians, in this case in the cyber arena.
So you can imagine the cyber arena. The technology, the technological advances change every day and so we’re going to this. This reimagined workforce is going to allow the US Air Force to now embrace and incentivise folks in uniform. Some are going to. We still need those leaders, that leadership development, but now we’re going to really value and show that we’re going to value developing just technicians who can stay on the cutting edge of technology because it’s so critical. Back to our external competition, if you will.
Kath Hume Host 22:36
I think that’s such a beautiful example and showing that you can take a diverse group of people and play to their strengths, and I love that. That change of mindset and that is exactly why I started this podcast is to think about what can we do differently when we’ve got these entrenched ideas? Interestingly, our federal government has recently proposed a $50,000 incentive scheme for people who stay in additional three years.
Patrick White Guest 23:07
Absolutely Kath, and so this is a great example of where to get after this and to support the secretary’s decision. It’s going to take Folks who appreciate demand, signal of work as well as the supply of the people, and so how do you incentivize people? Who? Who? Can they trust us, can they decide? In fact, oh, am I going to have an opportunity for promotion if I go down this route that we’ve never seen before in the Air Force? And so it takes a lot of deliberate planning and we’re part of that process, colluding all these different analytical entities together, and we’re building a plan to incentivise a subset of our workforce to become those technicians. So it’s a wonderful, it’s a great day and it’s a lot of fun.
Kath Hume Host 23:53
So what baffles me is that In a military you would on the on the demand side, you don’t necessarily know what military operations you’re going to be entering into and the geopolitical events that are going to be occurring. So I mean that the strategic workforce plan is able to come together when you don’t have that insight. So can you talk to us about how you go about that?
Patrick White Guest 24:21
Sure and that’s the beauty, Kath, of what SWP is essence perhaps for us in uniform is that, that plan, that P back to that P word, that planning. We were in a. We’re in a world with all sorts of dynamics going on geopolitically, and so how do we account for that, preparing our workforce for that? It’s a challenge, but, in recognition of that, just this past Monday, our secretary of force, like I said earlier, launched upon many changes to reorient and refocus what our key focus is, and that is competition, great power competition, and so what that means is when we partner with Australia like you know where you’re at, and in the UK, and numerous other allies and partners around the world, how do we collectively be prepared for that competition?
Hugely challenging question, okay, but one of the areas that we know of is that we have to allow people to be technicians, because the world around us is so technical, whether it’s business or geopolitically, the things that our allies and partners need and the things that perhaps those who don’t align with us, the things that they’re bringing to bear, is very technical, and so, in recognition of that, reimagining the workforce.
An aspect of that is to develop that extra career path so that we can be better prepared from a planning perspective and have people focus on technology for an entire career path or technological mission sets from a tire career path, instead of putting them in a technical job one assignment and then going off to become a leader or get some different education that isn’t tied to the, to the keyboard, if you will, in an assignment. And so all of this in play is all about strategic alignment to a plan and trying to get the workforce, which that W in the middle is there because it’s trying to align the people to the, to the strategy, so that we are prepared in for that great power competition.
Kath Hume Host 26:11
Tell me you mentioned right up front that you referred to something as a dream sheet, which I love this concept of you put down where you want to go, what your aspirations are. Is that something that’s still standard protocol as people enter and move throughout their career in the Air Force? It is, to a certain degree, but we’ve modernised and I’ll give you an example.
Patrick White Guest 26:32
In fact, the beauty of the current organisation that I lead is we are fortunate our Chief Human Resource officer several years ago recognized that we need some thinkers that are going to give another angle of how to incentivise people to make decisions.
And so we have labour economists and a key function of economics, of course, as we know, our markets.
And so my organisation has created a marketplace, an internal marketplace, talent marketplace for graduating cadets from both Air Force ROTC reserve, you know, basically in university around the country, as well as the Air Force Academy where I’m currently assigned, and we’ve created this marketplace, and so, instead of a dream sheet quote yesterday, the only thing that the dream sheet was informed by was my academic degree.
And yet the academic degree is, we know it is more than an academic degree that we can identify talent, and so we’ve expanded the amount of information that we get from cadets and much more than our academic degree, and we’ve expanded what the different functional communities and the different business units in the Air Force want, and we’ve collusioned that into a marketplace and optimised out placement for those cadets so that the cadets graduating this May are going to now be, for the first time aligned to a career field that really illuminated and expanded the amount of information on the both supply and demand of the skills and the need and the experiences that will be a better fit for an officer’s beginning of their journey as a career.
Kath Hume Host 28:06
You can see I imagine you’re doing that at scale for your workforce of 700,000 you can see how things like AI and the technological advances that we’ve seen and are seeing emerge are really going to support you in delivering that.
Patrick White Guest 28:21
Yes, well, certainly, A is going to have so many applications that we’re at the beginning, as I would say at the Air Force, of doing that. And we have HR practitioners, hr officers who are out upskilling. We have programs to incentivize upskilling, we have folks out getting doing research on how to apply AI techniques in an ethical way to our HR processes, and so we’re just at the beginning and again, there is so much opportunity. Ahead is really exciting.
Kath Hume Host 28:51
So how does your current role differentiate from all of your prior strategic workforce planning experience?
Patrick White Guest 28:57
Well, the current role is, is I would call perhaps the pinnacle of analytical capability, and that is the tools and techniques that labour economists bring to help shape personnel policies. One example of that is really, well, the key, fundamental, the most fundamental area of this is understanding causality, and what I mean by that is if I’m in uniform and I’m exposed to a policy or a program, how do I react to that? Does it drive me to maybe separate from the military? Does it motivate me to do more and perhaps improve my performance, etc. And so, labour economists, we’re able to evaluate personnel policies and really tease out that causality through building, by building evidence and bring that to the decision makers, the policy makers, and help them before they step into the policy makers and help them before they scale up a policy. We bring evidence and show that whether that idea that they have is actually going to get the outcome that they want with, in terms of whether the humans, the airmen and the guardians are going to make choices that achieve what the policies intended to do effect.
Kath Hume Host 30:00
So interesting and I’d love to compare the decisions we make today that are evidence informed to the decisions we made in days gone by, where they’re a little bit more based on gut feel, and the differences in outcomes that we’re getting.
Patrick White Guest 30:13
Kath Hume Host 30:14
Yeah, I think it’s. I think it’s gold that you’re able to pull this. Some very, very smart people are pulling this together and I’. I think you’re presenting some great examples. We are probably out of time, but can you tell me, would they best go about that? Sure?
Patrick White Guest 30:29
Probably LinkedIn is probably the easiest. Patrick J White and you know happy to connect. A powerful market itself of sharing information. So I love learning and connecting.
Kath Hume Host 30:40
And what I did love when we’ve had our prior conversations is that your motivation for doing this was giving back, and I think you’ve definitely done that. You’ve shared some amazing things with us. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it and keep in contact. I’m really. He came to hear how all those new reimagined workforce policies play out.
Patrick White Guest 31:02
Thank you, Kath. Really appreciate it and it’s been a pleasure.

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