Document created: 24 August 04
Air University Review, September-October 1970

Managing the Civilian Work
 Force in the Seventies

Charles A. Roberts

There stands here in Washington a neoclassic federal building adorned with a granite statue on the base of which these words are carved: “What is past is prologue.” As we pause on the threshold of a new decade and peer into the haze of the future, trying to foresee our problems, trying to develop solutions, trying to plan for a better way to get things done, let’s not ignore the counsel of those wise words. They can provide us with an insight into tomorrow which no amount of “crystal-balling” will ever be able to equal, no matter how clairvoyant the gazer may be.

setting the stage

In the context of managing the civilian work force, just what is this past that anticipates the future? What does it consist of? How was it formed? Who created it over the past two decades and more? Was it successful? Has it established a pattern for the future? Should that pattern be replaced? Revised? Sustained? The thrust of this article, then, will be to review our past . . . to examine our present . . . to consider the bad as well as the good―and hopefully to end up with reasonable predictions and recommendations.

The concept of personnel management, of work force management or even of management in general, was not nearly as voguish in the late forties as it is today. We had just come out of a long and trying war, we were a contracting organization, we were attuned to the requirements of a totally military activity, and our civilian work force served in a totally military environment. The concept of a military-civilian management team had not been fully developed. The emphasis on a civilian leadership philosophy, as evidenced in recent years, was just emerging in the Department of Defense (DOD). Our requirement as an organization was not for a highly sophisticated work force such as we have today but rather for what was often referred to as an “army of clerks,” denoting an absence of professionals.

Since the nature of the work force determines the nature of its management, our requirements at that time were fairly simple and easily met. Basically, the work force, because of its composition, required administration rather than management. The requirements to administer―that is, to locate applicants; investigate, examine, and hire them; set their salaries; control their benefits; train them; see that they were paid; and if necessary admonish them for their shortcomings―gave rise to the creation of a unique clan of employees now known as “personnel management specialists.” (As we shall see later, even the title used to designate these employees involves opposing philosophies, i.e., management vs. specialist.) These people―some hiring experts, some position classifiers, some wage administrators, some employee relations specialists, some clerks--comprised the total Air Force team for administration of the civilian work force.

As the need for personnel specialists began to increase, functional management “dropped the ball” by abandoning many of its responsibilities to the personnel administrators. It should be noted that this occurred in spite of Air Force policy guidance which delegated ample authority to managers to handle their own work force management affairs.  Thus, the personnel specialists in effect slowly became managers of the work force rather than administrators, as was originally intended. There are few managers in today’s Air Force organizations (our average age is about 47) who cannot recall the “Tell it to Personnel” attitude which existed in the fifties and to some extent still persists. Originally, the civilian personnel specialist teams filled a critical void. They provided an efficient and complete response to the personnel administration requirements of the work force. However, with what appeared to be the encouragement of management, coupled with the authority inherent in many of the administrative processes, the personnel specialist began expanding his role to the extent of becoming the personnel manager. In some instances personnel began to “call the shots” on such vital decisions as hiring, assigning, training, promoting, retaining, and firing personnel. With respect to at least one-third of its total work force, management to a substantial degree did not exercise its managerial voice.

As the personnel function took form, its representatives began to venture farther and farther into the management environment. Armed only with the tools of personnel administration, the specialist did his best under the circumstances and began applying his programs to management situations. The most hackneyed phrases in the personnel lingo today are “selling our programs to management” and “gaining the support of management.” For the past two decades the personnel specialist has found himself “selling” every idea that came down the pike―from “equality” to “merit.” He has become such an effective salesman and has acquired so much support that it is a bit shocking to read comments from the outside world (some call it the “real” world) on this same point. George Berkwitt, Senior Editor of Dun’s Review, puts it this way: “Snowed by jargon, unfamiliar with much of what the specialists propose, the confused executive either just goes along with the recommendations or shunts them aside.”1 Bernard J. Rahilly, Vice-President and Director of Management Development of W. R. Grace & Co., says it a little less subtly: “Giving specialists latitude is like letting kids loose in a candy store.”2

This expanded role of the personnel specialist continues to persist, but even so, there is an indication of at least some light at the end of the tunnel. In a recent study of manpower planning, covering the entire logistics field in DOD, some 47 recommendations were made, mostly concerned with civilian work force management. While the specific recommendations, taken on a one-for-one basis, may or may not represent the optimum solution to a particular problem, collectively they make it clear that functional management wants to become involved more and more in its personnel and manpower operations. Additionally, it is entirely possible that some of the change which is occurring stems from the personnel specialist himself. Even though he has oversold management on his own program and now finds himself telling management what to do,3 it is apparent that he is beginning to recognize the more important aspects of his role―those of adviser-consultant―and is eager to join management in resolving its problems on its own terms. Bernard Cushman, Executive Vice-President of Norton Company, has summed up the specialist’s role in a way that is tailor-made for our situation: “Specialists are most helpful as individuals who question and challenge line decisions, push management into thinking strategically and into being creative and innovative . . . .”4

So much for the past. So much for the thinking (and sometimes absence thereof) which brought us to the threshold of the seventies. The question is not so much where are we as where are we going? To continue with the philosophy which gave rise to the present role of the personnel organization would be not only out of tune with our times but potentially disastrous. Change is upon us and is one of tomorrow’s major imperatives. The required change is evident and can be simply stated. Whether it can be as simply effected is another matter. In short, personnel must disengage itself from the role of “program salesman” and “work force manager to all.” Management, functional management, beginning at the very top, must take on total responsibility for managing all its people.

today’s scene ― people

How does the prospect of having today’s youth as tomorrow’s managers appeal to you? Have you considered that fifty percent of the people in this nation are under twenty-five? Have you really thought about the product that will come out of today’s environment and be the work force of tomorrow?

There are two sides to the coin. Can you imagine a future manager who smokes pot? has an arrest record? has served time? has participated in strikes against the government as an employee? This may sound a bit farfetched, but the chances are that some of each of these categories are already on our roles, and the probability of that number’s increasing is excellent. An environment which each day produces situations where high-level state and federal officials find themselves or members of their families on the other side of the law, where junior-high students take and push dope, where unwed motherhood is no longer unusual―is an environment which will, no matter how tightly we close our eyes, produce a different breed.

On the other side of the coin―and perhaps even more significant than these somber situations―is the ever increasing involvement of young people in today’s social problems. Better air to breathe―cleaner water to drink ―more honesty in business practices―greater respect for human dignity―abolition of racial and religious biases―greater social justice―less involvement in the political affairs of other nations―all these are matters of the greatest concern to the people who will make up tomorrow’s work force. Just recently, still in the sixties, in a meeting of young Air Force employees, it was suggested that management permit employees to volunteer a couple of hours each day―or even each week―out of the normal work schedule to help out in neighborhood social programs. In short, these young people want Air Force to pay their salaries while they help invalids get out to vote, work on antipollution projects, counsel young drug addicts, teach the disadvantaged. From this breed will come our work force and many of our leaders of the seventies. Are you as a manager ready to be confronted with such drives and motivations on the part of your work force? The least we can do in preparation is to acknowledge the existence of these conditions. We might do well to do more―like plan. All these conditions, and many others, naturally have an effect on the individual employee and will manifest themselves as much on duty as off. Whether our reaction to them is positive or negative is of little importance for the purposes of this article, but they must be understood or our ability to communicate with our work force will be in jeopardy.

today’s scenepolarization

From all reliable accounts, there is a polarization process taking place in our work force management philosophy. We are beginning to concentrate primarily on the upper and the lower levels. Examples of both sides of the coin can be found in this phenomenon. Virgil B. Day, Vice-President, Personnel and Industrial Relations for General Electric, describes a “bi-modal” work force as follows:

Our research suggests that our major challenge will be in learning how to manage and motivate a bi-modal work force―a work force, that is, which poses key and highly divergent problems to managers at its two extremes. At one extreme will be the “top 15 percent” represented by key professional and managerial workers. Before 1975, we shall have passed a significant milestone in labor force history; for the first time, these professional and technical workers will outnumber skilled craftsmen.

At the other extreme of this bi-modal work force will be the “bottom 15 per cent” of our urban and rural disadvantaged. The first group consists of the highly educated, affluent, highly mobile, and highly motivated; the other, of the poorly educated, poverty stricken, ghetto-bound, poorly motivated. I am not, of course, saying that the needs of the remaining 70 per cent of the work force are unimportant, only that the new challenges to our innovative thinking will need a sharper focus at these two extremes.5

today’s scene―to centralize or not to centralize

I honestly believe that by establishing appropriate policies at the Secretarial level and placing the necessary accountability at the proper levels, the Department of Defense can be managed more effeetively.6

The Services have moved from a loose association with one another following World War II to a highly centralized Defense system in recent years. It is entirely possible that this process has gone too far . . . Over centralization can affect both initiative and responsibility at lower levels, sometimes greatly increasing costs as a result.7

These remarks were not made by ordinary men. The former by Defense Secretary Laird and the latter by Air Force Secretary Seamans hopefully point to a new era of decentralization. If these comments can somehow clear the “bureaucracy hurdle” and become official management guidelines for the seventies, our prospects for the future will be greatly enhanced. The chance of its occurring, however, is no better than fifty-fifty. The Parkinsonian effect which General McConnell, before retiring, described as requiring “more and more detailed information at higher and higher levels, and―more and more people at those levels”8 is just as active in precluding decentralization as the Secretaries are in recommending it.  General McConnell’s sum-up may explain the increasing OSD involvement in purely service affairs. Example: OSD (I&L) has actually acted upon a case in which the training being given an Air Force employee at the entry level was not found to be precisely equivalent to that which the Army offers. Admittedly, this seems to be an insignificant example when taken in isolation, but not when one considers the constant push from above to standardize systems, to standardize procedures, to standardize programs, to standardize data, and presumably at some Utopian point in the future even to standardize people.

Dr. James W. Walker of Indiana University Graduate School of Business recently put it this way: “To see to it that people are effectively utilized the manager must be willing to try new manpower planning in a fashion suited to the particular needs of his company. He cannot expect simply to imitate the methods of others or, worse yet, to import whole systems and programs and expect them to work in his own organization.”9 As we have found out again and again, the problems are at the lower levels and they are never the same. The power to solve them should be at that level also. If ever there were a need for a face-to-face situation, this is it:
problem development→   power to resolve

today’s sceneinformation versus data

How much does today’s manager know about his people? “Very little” is probably the most precise answer. We are organized in such a way that Personnel probably has more information than it really needs, and functional managers who have to get the job done know far too little about their workers. Some see it this way: Personnel people need data for their operation, and managers need information. The first category is what goes into a computer for statistical purposes. The second is alive, changing, meaningful―the stuff on which decisions are based. Data is an employee’s birthday; information is when he plans to retire.  Data is the kind of college degree he has; information is what he plans to do with it. Data is his current salary; information is whether he will move for a promotion. At a time when managers are starving for information, there is too much emphasis being given to data. Monumental systems are being established to collect and manipulate data in many ways―all of which will undoubtedly impress managers but will not solve their problems. On the other hand, precious little is being done to explore the means of obtaining the more meaningful attitudinal type of information that managers have to have.

Let’s not be overly impressed with data-processing promises. In his recent book Up the Organization, Robert Townsend, the Avis miracle man, snaps: “First get it through your head that computers are big, expensive, fast, dumb adding machine-typewriters. Then realize that most of the computer technicians that you’re likely to meet or hire are complicators, not simplifiers.”10 James P. Timoney, American Standard’s Manpower Planning Manager, had this experience with personnel data systems: “A complete dossier on each of tens of thousands of employees were put on tape, and the data bank became so monstrous that the only time they could run the computer for other business was on holidays.”11

the curtain goes up

What have we seen in our examination process? Have we answered any questions? Can we?

Let’s sum up. Tomorrow’s work force is going to be different, to say the least. Different by virtue of the environment in which it grew up, different by virtue of a new set of values spreading across the land. It will be more involved, more articulate, better educated, and as capable as any group we have seen before.

Tomorrow’s work force will contain a normal number of “yes” men, but an unusually high number of “no” men. It will be more imaginative and more creative than any previous group, but because of its search for truth and excellence much of its output will be discarded by the group itself. It will not be impressed by big numbers and massive programs, and it will ask why at every turn. It will be impressed by direct, forthright actions―by a management that shows concern, by an organization that cares for the human side of its work force. To utilize this group effectively, the manager is going to have to have similar qualifications. So tomorrow’s manager, as far as relations with the work force are concerned, must above all be capable, dedicated, honest to himself, well read, and highly compassionate. There’s nothing impossible to achieve in all of this; it’s just a matter of a frame of mind―and a lot of work.

As we have already seen, the mantle of today’s personnel managers must be passed to the functional managers. Personnel people will be consultants in the seventies. They will keep abreast of developments and improvements in their field. They will pass these on to functional managers for their use or rejection. The work force manager of the seventies will be the functional manager. Consult with personnel representatives? By all means, but do your own work force managing.

· Start with an information-gathering process in your own organization. (Make it simple and relevant to your own situation.)
· Massage the results of assessment yourself. (You’ll get to know your people better this way.)
· Identify weaknesses in your work force. (Plan to overcome them.)
· Identify high-potential people. (Plan to use them more effectively.)
· Consider the goals and ambitions which your people, individually, have established for themselves. (Try to understand these goals and take part in their being realized.)
· Forget the old hard-nosed approach. (Your successes are going to be in relation to your ability to work with your people, not push them.)
· Challenge the rules. (That’s how they get changed.)
· Stay humble. (If you’re not now, get that way.)
· Admit errors, (It’s not only refreshing, it’ll bring applause from your people.)
· Bite the bullet when the occasion arises. (Putting your job on the line in support of your people or your convictions can really be exhilarating.)
· Don’t look behind you for a personnel shoulder to lean on. (You’re on your own!)

Hq United States Air Force


1. George Berkwitt, “Is Management Too Specialized?” Dun’s Review February 1970, p. 23.

2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. For more information on the subject see J. R. Schuster, “A Diagnostic Model for Industrial Relations,” Personnel Administration, July-August 1969, pp. 26-33.

4. Berkwitt, p. 23.

5. Virgil B. Day, “Managing Human Resources in the Seventies,” Personnel Administration, January-February 1970, p. 24

6. Secretary of Defense Melvin H. Laird in his remarks to Summer Interns on 28 July 1969.

7. Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seaman, Jr., in presentation on the FY 1970 Air Force budget to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

8. Air Force chief of Staff General J. P. McConnell in presentation on the FY 1970 Air Force budget to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

9. James W. Walker, “Forecasting Manpower Needs,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 1969, p. 164.

10. Robert Townsend, Up the Organization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 36.

11. Berkwitt, p. 22.


Charles A. Roberts (B.A., Northwestern State College of Louisiana is Chief, Career Management, Directorate of Civilian Personnel, Hq USAF. During World War II he was an Army Air Corps pilot (RAF trained) in Europe and Africa. He has since been an Air Force language instructor in Spain, a personnel technician, base civilian personnel officer, and project officer on base closures and overseas employment. Mr. Roberts often addresses the USAF Personnel Development Center, Gunter AFB, Alabama.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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