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HAFB visits Comic Con to recruit for STEM workers

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SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend, representatives from the state's largest military installation are "boldly going" where few like them have gone before — to the center of the comic book and science fiction fantasy world in hopes of finding willing "recruits" for real jobs in the real world of science, technology, engineering and math.

Hill Air Force Base is searching for candidates to hire for hundreds of current and future civilian positions, explained Alison Sturgeon, civilian engineer and STEM outreach program manager at Hill. She said to fill all the positions that will be coming online over the next several years, the base will need to hire 200 to 300 people annually.

Statewide, there are about 7,000 open STEM jobs, she noted. With such a dearth of qualified people to fill scores of available high-tech positions, Sturgeon and a team of colleagues from Hill are targeting their efforts toward the Salt Lake Comic Con show at the Salt Palace Convention Center to find worthy candidates.

She noted that while the three-day event typically attracts thousands of sci-fi and comic geeks, they are hoping to find some STEM nerds as well. After reaching out to convention organizers, they were able to get their booth for free. Then it was up to the team to develop a plan to recruit.

For the Salt Lake Comic Con, the Hill crew received support from local aerospace and engineering groups. Sturgeon is hopeful the effort will provide exposure to a new audience.

"I have a philosophy that I will try most anything once," Sturgeon said. "This was the perfect opportunity to see if this could be worth our time."

She said the outreach program supports about 115 events annually throughout Utah in search of STEM-skilled workers.

"We'll send people out to science fairs giving career presentations and have people who mentor robotics teams and cyber-patriot teams," she said. They also send judges to various technology competitions across the state, she added.

Among the goals of the recruitment effort is to show people the kind of projects they would be able to work on as a civilian employee and the complex assignments under development at the base.

"We continually advance our technology," Sturgeon said. "It's amazing how technically advanced our Air Force is."

She noted that new aircraft operated at Hill and throughout the military has become increasingly sophisticated.

"The new F-35 (fighter jet is) called a computer with wings because it's got literally millions upon millions of lines of code to make that plane operate," Sturgeon said. "The (pilot's) helmet alone has millions of lines of code making it work."

She said the ongoing technological advances continually increase the base's need for skilled workers.

"It just gets harder and harder for us to get enough people to fill our jobs," she said. To make things more challenging, they are required to hire American citizens as a matter of national security.

She said their efforts also extend to supporting programs to get more children interested in STEM careers beginning in elementary school, so they "know how exciting and really cool it is to work in these areas."

"It's a national security issue to the point of crisis for us to get enough engineers and computer scientists to fill these jobs that we need so desperately," Sturgeon said. "For Hill Air Force Base, the majority of what we need are electrical engineers, computer engineers and computer scientists."

Those are "by far" the base's most urgent needs, she said. The engineers work primarily on the F-35, F-22 and A-10, she added.

"(We also) update weapons systems (and) completely rewrite the operational flight program for the F-16 every two years," she said. "That — in and of itself — is a huge undertaking!"

This is Hill's first visit to Salt Lake Comic Con, future efforts at the show will depend upon the interest garnered over the three days of the event, she said.