Army fights skills gap online

The Army is hoping to keep its highly skilled troops — already sought by

the better-paying private sector — in uniform by making them even more highly

skilled.

Under a $600 million plan dubbed Army University Access Online, the

Army will administer an ambitious distance-learning program that will give

soldiers the chance to earn college degrees and technical skill certificates

online — whether they staff a Pentagon desk or guard a gate in Bosnia.

But it's a move that carries some risk because the military is already

a talent pool for civilian firms and agencies looking for skilled workers.

Soldiers with more advanced training and education should become even more

sought after in the civilian marketplace.

For example, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) manages

to recruit and retain many people who have served between four and eight

years — a requirement to become a special agent.

But their training makes them valuable to the civilian sector, said

Col. Michael Jordan, director of personnel at OSI, located at Andrews Air

Force Base, Md. Eventually, he said, agents must decide whether to stay

in for at least 20 years — potentially putting themselves out of the running

for a second full career in government because of retirement cut-offs — or leave the Air Force for better money.

And many who do stay for 20 years are gone quickly after that because

there is great opportunity in the civilian sector, he said. "So I think

we have a serious retention problem," he said.

For those trained in computers, the retention problem is even greater,

said C. Damon Hecker, chief of computer investigations and operations for

OSI.

Nearly all officers leave after just four years with OSI, he said, resulting

in regular loss of the agency's young captains.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera announced the distance-learning plan July

10, the same day the Army released a request for proposals for the program.

Caldera said the Army is asking schools and universities, Internet companies

and computer hardware and software manufacturers for their best ideas on

how to establish the program.

The aim of the program is to boost first-term enlistments, retain soldiers

and build a force that understands information technology, Caldera told

a press gathering in Washington, D.C.

"We envision a program that will be available to soldiers anytime and

anywhere they go in the Army," Caldera said in a prepared statement. "A

program so accessible and so effective that potentially more than a million

soldiers could eventually take advantage of it."

He said the program would enhance the Army's reputation as a place of

unlimited opportunity for personal and professional growth while guaranteeing

that it has the soldiers with the skills needed for the 21st century.

Whether the distance-learning campaign will succeed remains to be seen,

however.

The Army already has problems holding on to its first-term and midcareer

soldiers. So far it is running about 2,500 behind its re- enlistment goals

for this year.

One reason is that soldiers with certain skills, especially technical

skills, can find civilian jobs with larger paychecks and without the burden

of military deployments.

Caldera said he isn't concerned.

"That's not a problem so long as other people out there know where they

can come for that education," he said. "I don't have a problem losing soldiers

because of the skills and education they got in the Army."

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