Tech Brain Drain Pains Military By Noah Shachtman
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/conflict/0,2100,...0,56309,00.html
02:00 AM Nov. 18, 2002 PT
This should be a golden time for military scientists. The armed forces are flush with cash and bulging with bleeding-edge projects. The war on terror relies on newfangled gadgets. And the civilian economy is in the toilet.
But the armed forces are scrambling to cope with a massive exodus of scientific and engineering talent.
This departure is particularly brutal for the Air Force. About 20 percent of the service's 13,300 science and engineering positions are currently unfilled. Thousands more of these jobs will be abandoned in the next five years as baby boomers begin to retire.
The shortcomings are already affecting maintenance of core weapons programs and arms research. And the problems are expected to get much worse.
Crucial hubs -- like the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where futuristic aircraft like the F-22 fighter and the Global Hawk drone are developed -- "will see up to 50 percent of their (technical) people out the door," said Robert Bunting, a resources chief for the Air Force Materiel Command. "We're not making up for those people with new hires."
At Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, staffing gaps have shelved upgrades to flight control and weapons software for fighter planes like the F-16 and the A-10.
"We simply do not have enough scientists and engineers, military or civilian, to meet our requirements," Lt. Gen. Stephen Plummer, the military director of the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board, recently told Air Force Print News.
The Air Force has tried some limp measures to cope with the departures: producing a Web-based career guide for the technically minded, establishing a scientific mentor program and declaring 2002 the Year of the Engineer and Scientist.
"Military laboratories will need a lot more than a new PR campaign in order to make them broadly attractive to scientific talent," wrote Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists in an e-mail.
The problems stem in large part from federal hiring practices. There's a nearly endless series of tests, interviews and evaluations. And only American citizens are welcome.
"It takes about 5-1/2 months to process a single civil service hire," said Mike Zyda, director of the Naval Postgraduate School's MOVES Institute, which develops modeling and simulations for the armed services. "The (human resources) system is just dead. They work one day a week, from eight to nine in the morning. And they've got these high school dropouts setting the pay for Ph.D.s."
Zyda circumvents these rules by hiring nearly all of his employees as faculty members of the school.
Other technical centers use similar workarounds. By classifying a job under a "laboratory demonstration project," the Army Corps of Engineers can hire, on the spot, college graduates with a grade point average of 3.5 or better. The Corps can also pay these employees more, offer signing bonuses and provide merit raises -- nearly impossible under the standard rules.
That's crucial because while demand for science and engineering jobs is growing, the number of students in those disciplines has stayed more or less the same.
As part of hiring programs ramped up during the mid-1990s to prepare for boomer retirements, the Corps hires 600 recent college graduates a year, and gives another 600 sophomores, juniors and seniors part-time jobs with the expectation that they'll work full time when they graduate.
"If we didn't start working on this problem years ago, we'd be up shit creek," said Tony Whitehouse, the Corps' employment chief.
Air Force brass only began to face their personnel problems within the last two years, said Materiel Command's Bunting. In fact, from fiscal year 1997 to 2002, the Air Force Research Lab reduced its civilian science and engineering teams by more than 25 percent. Today more than 40 percent of the military positions in these areas are open.
But it's unclear whether the Air Force is truly worried about the problem. There's no money in next year's budget for already approved "retention bonuses" for scientists and engineers.
Without these experts, the armed services must turn to outside contractors -- an imperfect solution.
Contractors are twice as expensive as military employees, a senior Army scientist noted. And private companies, concentrating on the next quarter's profits, don't have the time or inclination to "scheme and dream," said Carole Hedden of Aviation Week.
"The next big breakthroughs -- how are they going to happen?" Hedden asked.
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