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During the past six years, military leaders and researchers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station have put an increasing amount of time and resources into attracting, educating and retaining a workforce with roots in Southern Maryland.

Now, they say, they’re seeing results.

“Our goal is to encourage the workforce to stay,” said Gary Kessler, executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. Employees who are recruited from faraway places tend to get homesick and leave, Kessler said. So, his program has focused on recruiting in St. Mary’s County schools and, he said, reaching out to Charles and Calvert counties as well.

Last spring, the first class of graduates completed four-year engineering degrees after taking their first two years of classes at the College of Southern Maryland and the remaining two years of coursework with the University of Maryland, College Park. Engineering projects have focused on how to design composite airplane structures, anticipating what will happen if the composite cracks and looking at ways to improve combustion.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredited the program this summer.

At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the physics department landed a $270,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research in May. Part of the work will be with Pax River scientists using atoms to measure the distance, direction and speed of friendly and enemy equipment on the battlefield, in the air and in the water with greater accuracy.

St. Mary’s College also received $1 million from The Patuxent Partnership this May to develop more coursework in applied physics, which focuses on solving day-to-day problems. Much of that work will include laboratory research and projects with students, faculty and Pax River engineers and scientists.

After completing the program, students will be prepared to work as physicists or engineers, said physics professor Joshua Grossman. With the additional resources, the college also is looking to double its number of physics graduates, which Grossman said currently is at about seven students per year.

Kessler said NAWCAD is looking at opportunities to work with the math department at St. Mary’s College to use algorithms enabling multiple unmanned aircraft to fly in formations.

NAWCAD also is discussing partnering with St. Mary’s College professors to develop curricula that include high-tech gaming and flight simulators, Kessler said.

Ultimately, NAWCAD would like to bring a research park to the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, working with scientists and engineers from the base, colleges and universities. That research park could include involvement from small businesses focusing on innovation and, hopefully, attract investors, he said.

Pax River could be “a mini-Silicon Valley” with a focus on unmanned aircraft and ship technology, said Rear Adm. Steven Eastburg.

Eastburg is retiring this month after nearly 32 years in the Navy, but says he will continue to support these partnerships.

In the past, he said, NAVAIR has recruited at more than 100 schools and “we weren’t very surgical about it.” He wants NAVAIR to be competitive with Fortune 500 companies when it comes to hiring talented people.

Employees — engineers, scientists, contract specialists, logisticians, financial experts and others — almost immediately see how their work benefits sailors and Marines, and contributes to national security, Eastburg said.

Potential employees in Southern Maryland need to know that close to home, they can land jobs that give them a sense of purpose and meaning, he said.

In turn, Eastburg said, “We have the right to demand and expect that we can attract the very best workforce.”

nclark@somdnews.com