Recruiters make IT connection

DOD and other agencies showcase online chops to attract tech-savvy young people to their ranks

When Jeffrey Parsons began his career in Army contracting 30 years ago and needed an answer to a question, he would turn to an experienced person sitting near him or spend hours poring over the Defense Acquisition Regulations.

Now the newest employees at the Army Contracting Command, where Parsons is executive director, can simply exchange instant messages with co-workers nationwide or use the command’s Google-like search engine to find the information they need.

“What used to take me half a day to do 30 years ago, these young folks probably can do in less than 30 minutes,” Parsons said. “That’s what they expect, so if I don’t have those types of tools and technology and applications available to them, they will quickly get frustrated and will look to move to someplace else where the environment is more conducive to what they’re used to.”

Military and civilian government executives are finding they need cutting-edge technology to attract and retain talented workers. The culture and technology changes aren’t easy, but they are necessary for agencies that want to appeal to today’s workers.

Going retail
For decades, Army recruiting offices have looked the same: uniformed soldiers seated behind rows of metal desks in a setting more intimidating than welcoming.

“There is really no reason to go into those places unless you already know you want to join the Army,” said Maj. Larry Dillard, program manager for the new Army Experience Center. “So the challenge was showing the folks who don’t know anything about the Army what benefits it can provide them.”

For people with little interest in finding out more about the Army, the old-style recruiting station wouldn’t do much to change their attitude. So Army officials decided to experiment with a new type of recruiting center. The result is the Army Experience Center, a 14,500-square-foot facility that opened last summer in a shopping mall in Philadelphia. It resembles an Apple store or video arcade more than a military recruiting station.

Touch-screen applications, rows of video games, and helicopter and Humvee simulators let visitors learn about the Army without having to speak to a recruiter. Flat-screen monitors are mounted throughout the center, and a large screen at the entrance features an application built on Google Earth technology that visitors can use to learn about Army bases worldwide.

Visitors must register if they want to use the games and other systems. They must provide basic contact information and details such as school status and grade averages. Visitors can ask to receive additional information about the Army, but they are not obligated. Those who register receive a photo ID they can use for future visits. Some students come to the center almost every day to play the video games, Dillard said.

“It is all designed to be very interactive,” he said. “We know from our research that young people don’t trust authority figures, and they’re used to informing themselves.”

People from previous generations might be more comfortable talking to someone to learn about a career, but today’s students prefer to start with a Google search, Dillard said.

“They’re going to blogs and social networking online — that’s how they’re informing themselves,” Dillard said. “They don’t want to have that human interface as the first step in a process. So we’ve tried to build stuff here where they can come in and inform themselves about the Army without having to talk to anyone.”

About 20 soldiers staff the center. They are trained in how to share their stories, and they wear Army polo shirts and khaki pants, not traditional Army uniforms. They do not have recruiting quotas and only talk to visitors about joining the Army if the visitors start the conversation.

Although most young people are drawn to the center’s fun elements, the goal of attracting recruits to the Army is not lost, Dillard said.

“What we find is people come in again and again and again,” Dillard said. “And eventually they’re going to talk to a soldier, and they’re going to leave with the impression, ‘I didn’t realize soldiers were like that. I didn’t know there are regular guys in the Army. I thought they were all different.’”

The Google model
While on a tour of Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif., Parsons quickly saw that the company’s culture is quite different from the Defense Department’s.

For example, many Google workers don’t have offices or cubicles. They work in lounge areas, the cafeteria or even outside. Google’s use of cloud computing helps enable that culture because employees are able to access applications and data via a Web browser.

The government will likely never have the fully open culture of Google, but it is still important to understand how the new workforce thinks, government executives say.

“It became pretty apparent to me and others on the tour that we really need to understand the technologies and the applications that younger folks are starting to use out there every day,” Parsons said.

Failing to recognize those trends could put the government at a disadvantage when it tries to hire and retain young workers.

“A lot of the CIOs I talk to say there is a lot of pressure on them to change the IT applications for these incoming employees because new workers feel they actually have better applications and solutions at home than they do in the office,” said Mike Bradshaw, director of Google Federal.

A demonstration of Google’s Picasa Web Albums, an online tool for storing and sharing photographs, was an eye-opener for some of the two-star generals on the tour. They were shown how soldiers deployed in Tikrit, Iraq, are using the service to share photos and stay in touch with friends and family back home.

“The message I took away from that was you can’t fight what’s going on out there,” Parsons said. The tour also reinforced his view that cloud computing and other technologies must be part of the permanent Army Contracting Command.

In March, the Army Materiel Command activated a provisional contracting command that will oversee more than $85 billion in contracts each year.

The Army plans to increase its contracting officer and noncommissioned officer corps by more than 900 soldiers. The command will also hire civilians, many of whom will be recent college graduates.

“We need to make sure we’re using those same types of technologies and applications they’re already using because that’s what new hires are going to expect,” Parsons said. 

The primary effort toward reaching that goal is establishing a Web-based system that will give employees access to contract-creation tools, knowledge management systems and databases. Officials say the system will help workers be more efficient and make teleworking a possibility.

“We don’t do a lot of telework today, and that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re not in a virtual environment,” Parsons said.

Now that the Army Contracting Command has received initial funding, it has started deploying components of the Web-based system at Fort Monmouth, N.J. 

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