Spokane Journal of Business

Fairchild Air Force Base to beta test externship program

Program pairs airmen with local businesses for four-week experience

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Fairchild Air Force Base will be the beta testing site for a U.S. Air Force program that will be launched this summer to match service members with local companies to exchange knowledge and ideas.

Capt. Sean Johnson, chief technology officer of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, says the program—called DFellows, short for Decentralized Fellowships—will match airmen with local companies for four-week externships.

The aim of DFellows is to increase the understanding and skillsets of airmen and foster relationships between the private industry and the U.S. Department of Defense, Johnson says.

“We see an opportunity to learn from each other,” he says. “That’ll be the foundation for what this program looks like for us in the future.”

So far, about 10 companies have joined the DFellows program. Johnson says he envisions a total of 15 companies joining the program so that airmen might have multiple externship options. 

He says that while only private companies are currently involved in DFellows, the program could include nonprofit organizations and government agencies outside of the Department of Defense in the future. 

Inland Northwest companies that have agreed to take part in the program include Spokane Valley-based remote shelter maker Berg Manufacturing Inc., Coeur d’Alene-based manufacturer Continuous Composites Inc., Spokane-based fintech software startup Treasury4 Inc., and Spokane Valley-based clean tech company CarbonQuest Inc.

The DFellows program is seeking to partner only with smaller organizations, Johnson says, and the Air Force is contracting with San Francisco-based staffing and recruiting company Shift.org Inc. to identify potential partners.

Fairchild is accepting nominations through mid-July for five airmen to participate in the program. Nominees will be notified in late July, and then will begin the process of transitioning into the externships, which will begin Aug. 1.

Airmen in the DFellows program will be separated from primary duties, will perform some research to familiarize themselves with the industry in which their externship company operates, and will tour the company if possible.

“We’ll provide some ethics training, because there’s a little red tape we need to make sure our folks understand,” Johnson says.

The DFellows program is modeled after the Air Force’s joint Defense Ventures Program. In 2014, the Air Force established AFVentures, a commercial investment arm of the Air Force. 

The AFVentures fellowship was created in 2020 to embed airmen in venture capital companies, with the intent of gaining understanding about risk management and developing technology, as well as building relationships between private venture capital companies and the Department of Defense.

Johnson says that in mid-August, the Air Force will check in with companies participating in externships with the DFellows program. The externships will end Aug. 26, at which point the Air Force will ask for feedback from the participating companies.

Airmen in the program will be assessed prior to the externship and again 30 days afterward, Johnson says. The assessment will consider personality characteristics and skills, such as problem solving. 

He says the assessment aims to determine whether the airman remains motivated by their externship experience.

“Are they still on fire?” Johnson says. “That is the intent of the program: To set someone on fire and bring some energy and ideas back.”

The DFellows program could expand to other Air Force bases as early as September, Johnson says. Future externships could last longer than a month, he adds.


Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the health care industry. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys traveling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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