AFSC engineering director helping bring diversity to future STEM force Published Feb. 26, 2021 By Amy Schiess Air Force Sustainment Center Public Affairs TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The top engineer in Air Force Sustainment Center is determined to demystify Air Force STEM careers, especially among groups currently underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. As one of the volunteers for the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Awards Virtual STEM Conference Feb. 12 and 13, Alphonso Thomas, AFSC Engineering and Technical Management director, was able to reach hundreds of high school students from around the country with the message that an Air Force career in STEM offers opportunities they may not have considered before. “Most people don’t understand the spectrum of jobs we have in the Air Force, both civilian and military,” said Thomas, who participated in a recruiting event, a mentoring session, an engineering panel, and a military service awards banquet during the conference. “We always have the question – ‘Do I have to join the Air Force to work for the Air Force?’ No, you don’t.” He said one of the best things about the conference is it allows professionals to talk to students before they go to college to inform them about opportunities and encourage them to pursue a STEM education. “The number of scientists and engineers that we need are not coming out of the universities.” According to BEYA, the military is one of the largest STEM employers in the United States, yet one of the most misunderstood among civilian populations. During the mentoring session, Thomas and 150 other Senior Executive Service members and general officers spoke to more than 350 students in virtual rooms. In addition to answering questions about STEM, many mentors were also able to talk about career challenges they have experienced as a black engineer and how to handle them. The goal of Thomas’s efforts is to make the STEM career field look more like the community it serves. In each of his last four jobs, he has been the first black person to hold the position. At one point early in his career, Thomas realized he did not have higher level advocacy in reaching his goals, although others who did not look like him received support. “That’s when I started my master’s degree,” Thomas said. “Education got me past that,” along with some mentoring from a GS-15 from whom he sought advice. Today he tells students “Never assume you’re not good enough. That will hold you back. Be bold and courageous. It’s okay to be different. Do the best you can do at everything you do,” an adage he learned growing up. “With limited education herself, my mother couldn’t offer me advice on higher education, but she did, however, give me advice like treating people the way they ought to be treated and never giving up,” Thomas said. Thomas received the Stars and Stripes Military Service Award in the SES category during the BEYA conference for his contributions to the Air Force and proven support of the BEYA Stars and Stripes mission. In his acceptance remarks, he said, “Due to my mother’s life lessons, support of my educators at a young age, and the advice from many devoted mentors along the way, I am blessed and extremely grateful to have advanced from my little shack behind a house on a dirt road in Alabama to being a member of the elite Senior Executive Service corps in the United States Air Force. I thank you so much for this opportunity.” His hope is for the next generation of black engineers to experience the same level of success with fewer obstacles, something the Air Force’s recent diversity and inclusion efforts may help make possible. “The fact that African-Americans and other minorities feel like they can talk about what has been eating us up for years is progress,” Thomas said. “The fact that we, as a nation, are now having the conversation is progress.” But he cautions that there is still much to be done. “We are still at the tip of the iceberg as far as knowing how to make change. To make real change, we must change people’s hearts,” he said. “That’s not something you can legislate. You can’t tell people what to feel. Changing hearts is going to be tough.” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown offered Thomas his congratulations during the awards ceremony. Thomas said just hearing the first black chief of staff of the Air Force say his name was an honor. “Some of our top Airmen don’t always wear a uniform and, Mr. Thomas, we really do appreciate that you not only served as an Airman in uniform but as a very strong civilian,” Brown said. “From very humble beginnings to rise to the level you are, I am extremely proud of you.” Thomas became director of AFSC/EN in April 2019. He manages the engineering and technical aspects of the center’s mission to provide sustainment and logistics readiness. AFSC provides maintenance, repair, modifications and software engineering to aircraft and engines, enables the nuclear enterprise, delivers supply chain readiness and provides installation support. AFSC employs approximately 40,000 military and civilian Airmen.