Finding a way to fix brain drain

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, authorised 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 maximum level.

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 authorised 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 bill.

"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 on October 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 personalised attention," Walker said. "However, in practice, DARPA has minimised 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 force.

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