Military tech workers fall out

Civilian agencies aren't alone in their trouble trying to retain technical

workers in today's hot job market: The Defense Department is experiencing

some of the same challenges.

DOD has had a particularly hard time retaining enlisted personnel working

in technical occupations such as communications and intelligence, according

to a General Accounting Office report released this month.

Officers in those technical areas were less likely to leave, and personnel

retention rates in DOD remained relatively stable from 1988 to 1998.

"What we're saying is we didn't see retention problems overall in the

aggregate sense. But if we look at it in so-called career stages, then we

do see a problem in terms of midcareer enlisted personnel," said Kwai-Cheung

Chan, director of Special Studies and Evaluations in GAO's National Security

and International Affairs Division.

The Army, Navy and Air Force, for example, experienced retention rate

reductions of 10 percent or more among enlisted personnel in the data processing

arena when comparing 1998 with 1996-97.

In many cases, retention problems among enlisted employees meant that

some required positions at DOD agencies went unfilled. In the Air Force,

areas such as radar and air traffic control, radio and radio code, and data

processing were understaffed in 1998 compared with 1996-97.

In general, midcareer enlisted personnel were the most likely to leave.

Most of them were in communication and intelligence or electrical and mechanical

equipment repair. In contrast, retention rates among officers showed relatively

smaller changes and were not concentrated in any particular occupational

group, according to the report.

DOD officials attribute midcareer reductions in retention to factors

including the growth of job opportunities in the civilian sector, increased

military operations overseas and service members' concerns about eroding

benefits and quality of life, according to GAO.

A stringent pay scale that, for the most part, does not differentiate

among occupations is another factor that hurts retention, said Albert Robbert,

senior researcher at Rand Corp.

All services are increasing their selective re-enlistment bonuses to

keep people on board, according to a DOD spokeswoman. "We anticipate these

targeted pays, in conjunction with the [fiscal] 2000 pay raise and the July

2000 pay table reform, will provide comparable compensation," she said.

A severe retention problem may mean a less-experienced and less-capable

military work force, Robbert said. "If experience levels go too low, then

the [work force] is less productive and less capable — and weapons systems

may not be maintained as they should be," he said. "It becomes more difficult

to train them because the ratio of trainers to trainees gets pretty bad."

"The loss of skilled personnel cannot be replaced through hiring actions,"

the DOD spokeswoman said. "The experience that individual brings to the

position is lost until a replacement can advance with the commensurate level

of experience." In some cases, employees are cross-trained if possible.

In its report, GAO recommended that DOD conduct "more systematic and

comprehensive assessments" of military personnel retention annually. To

date, few studies have been conducted to systematically assess where retention

problems have occurred and whether specific or broad policies are needed,

GAO said.

In its response to the report, DOD said it recognizes there is no "one

size fits all" solution to retaining personnel. DOD has been studying the

issue for well over a year, the DOD spokeswoman said. It produces monthly

reports and uses them as a guidepost for personnel decisions.


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