Civilian IT pay thwarts Army

The Army has kicked off an intensive project to determine how to better recruit and retain uniformed and civilian personnel in the highly competitive information technology field, with top leadership and soldiers in the trenches conceding that the Army cannot compete with the civilian marketplace in terms of salaries alone.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs, commander of U.S. Army Europe, provided the impetus for the project in March when he sent a series of e-mail messages to Gen. John Keane, Army vice chief of staff. The messages addressed Meigs' concerns about so-called information technology and information assurance (IT/IA) work force issues, which, besides recruitment and retention, include training, certification and the need for a better definition of the career field and advancement opportunities.

Keane then formed an Army IT/IA Workforce Issues Study Group, which will recommend solutions to help the Army retain its highly trained IT/IA personnel in a marketplace in which commercial firms routinely offer Army IT personnel starting salaries that reach as high as $80,000 a year.

The study started this September and will run through August 2000, and will feature an online survey of all uniformed and civilian IT/IA personnel. The Army plans to use the survey, which Keane asked all IT/IA personnel to complete by Nov. 20, to identify the makeup of the IT/IA work force and to determine how best to use their talents to meet the needs of the digitized Army.

Keane, in a Sept. 22 memo appended to the survey, said that feedback from the field highlighted the need for the Army to find a better way to recruit and retain its IT/IA personnel, whom he described as "the linchpin to ensure success in information dominance and to counter the continued threat and security issues in our information networks."

Although the work force study group put monetary considerations at the top of its list of factors that could help the Army better recruit and retain IT workers, top Army leaders, such as Army Secretary Louis Caldera, said "intangibles, such as pride of service," remains the Army's trump card in competition with commercial IT firms because "a lot of our folks know they can make more" outside the Army.

Caldera said that the Army intends to step up its training efforts with a program to wire its barracks, which would give soldiers easy access to distance-learning courses, including college-level courses. "We want to drive the cost of distance learning [to the soldier] down to next to nothing," Caldera said at a press briefing held during last week's Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Michael Gravens, chief sergeant major of the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas—the Army's prototype digitized division—said the Army "cannot compete with the commercial world" in terms of salaries. But, he said, the Army manages to retain dedicated IT soldiers who view their careers as more than just a way to get a paycheck.

Gravens, speaking at another press briefing at the convention, said the Army still can tap into personnel who willingly "forsake the big dollars for love of country and love of the Army." A re-enlistment campaign that plays to patriotism can pay off, Gravens said, pointing out that in the last quarter, the Fourth Division's re-enlistment rate was 100 percent, although he could not break it down by military occupational specialty.

Maj. Charles Wells, who works in the Army's strategic and advanced computing center in the Pentagon, said that because the service cannot compete with commercial enterprises, "maybe we should not even try to compete" because the challenge of a military career provides more than compensation.

"I'm using my skills in a challenging real-world environment," said Wells, interviewed at a booth at the Washington meeting that displayed the Army's new intranet and intranet portal, slated to go online at the end of October. "I'm only a junior officer, but I'm building the Army's intranet."

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