Army fights skills gap online
- By Bryant Jordan
- Jul 24, 2000
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
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
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,
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."