Finding a way to fix brain drain
- By George I. Seffers
- Jul 31, 2000
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking forward to the
expansion of a program that gives it greater flexibility in hiring science
and engineering experts.
The 2001 Defense appropriations bill will expand DARPA's Experimental
Personnel Management Program for Technology Workers — an expansion Defense
Department sources say is critical to the future of the program.
The five-year program, authorized last year, gives DARPA more flexibility
in hiring 20 "eminent experts in science and engineering" for research and
development projects. The program allows DARPA to cut the hiring process
from several months to about three weeks.
Employees hired under the program are limited to a maximum rate of pay,
just as other federal workers are, but they are not assigned pay grades,
pay bands or steps, and the initial salary is negotiable up to the allowable
DARPA has already filled 12 of the 20 positions that have been authorized
over the five-year period — a success rate that will create problems if
the program is not expanded.
"The thought is that DARPA will cap out by filling its 20 allotted positions
by the end of the second year at the current rate of hire," DARPA spokeswoman
Jan Walker said. "Provided all employees remain with DARPA for their four-year
appointments, DARPA will therefore not be able to hire any additional personnel
under this authority during the third and fourth years of the experiment,
thereby losing the continual and beneficial source mix of its program managers."
To counter that problem, the Defense appropriations bill contains a
provision to double the number of positions authorized under the experiment
and extend it by two years. The measure has passed the House, and the Senate
is expected to move quickly to pass it. The White House also supports the
"Flexibility in carrying out this experimental program successfully
may rest with the opportunity to continue filling positions during the third
and fourth years of the program," Walker said.
DARPA officials consider the program a success. In its 1999 report,
delivered to Congress in February, agency officials wrote that the program
has reduced hiring times from months to weeks, has allowed greater salary
flexibility, has attracted talented employees and has allowed the agency
to better compete with private industry for top talent. The next annual
report to Congress is due Oct. 15.
One analyst said the DARPA program sounds like just what the doctor
ordered for the ailing federal technology work force.
"It sounds like a great program that needs to be expanded and replicated,
if they continue to have success with it," said Majorie Bynum, vice president
of work force development for the Information Technology Association of
America. "Programs that let the government recruit from private industry
and that make it easier to bring them into the government work force without
jumping through a lot of hoops is really what the government needs, especially
in DOD, where the shortage of workers is critical. The private sector is
where the solution lies, and it really will take a partnership between
government and private industry."
Still, the program has hit minor snags. Besides filling positions too
quickly, DARPA feared that using dual hiring processes — the traditional
process as well as the experimental process — would strain the agency's
human resources department.
"In contrast to civil service positions, which have salary increases
set by law, positions under [the program] have much more flexibility, which
DARPA had anticipated would require more personalized attention," Walker
said. "However, in practice, DARPA has minimized the human resources management
burden with the implementation of policies and internal instructions that
govern annual reviews and salary increases. One additional staff member
has been hired to supplement [human resources] at DARPA."
With more and more people leaving government to pursue better-paying
positions in the private sector, attracting and retaining technologically
skilled workers has become a major issue for agencies. The Pentagon recently
established a task force to look for ways to attract more acquisition and
technology workers, even if for only a short time.
"We want to create a revolving door that would give us not only a free
exchange of ideas and information but would give the employee more experience
and make him more valuable to his company than if he had stayed in the private
sector the whole time," said Keith Charles, who heads the Pentagon's task