Military tech workers fall out
- By Colleen O'Hara
- Mar 19, 2000
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,
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.