Military Tech Workers Fall Out

WASHINGTON (03/21/2000) - Civilian agencies aren't alone in their trouble trying to retain technical workers in today's hot job market: The U.S.

Department of Defense 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 Û 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, GAO said.

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.

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