fighting the long war with the jr. varsity

Let me preempt the inevitable brickbats by saying I never met a new/recent hire that wasn’t better educated than I was at that age (and probably more inquisitive to boot):

The Department of Defense will face a worldwide civilian manning challenge in the near future, because roughly 22 percent of its work force will reach retirement age within two years, a senior Defense Department official said Monday.

This follows on the heels of an earlier report:

Some of Defense¹s most crucial civilian employees such as security and intelligence officials and human resources specialists are also quickly leaving the department. Attrition rates for employees in all those categories range from 8.5 percent to 11.7 percent ‹ well above the department-wide rate of 7.9 percent, according to a recent Pentagon report.

Raw talent only takes you so far. There is a reason why any given year’s BCS champs would get blown out by the worst team in the NFL that same year. The primary difference between generations in any endeavor is the level of play and time on task, and that cannot be replaced no matter how sophisticated your KM system (presuming you have a meaningful one in the first place). There is no substitute for the soon-to-retire former weapons engineer who can point to a diagram generation X is scratching their heads over and say, “Oh, that’s a bomb trigger circuit. I used to build those.” Likewise the fresh face who runs to your cube excited about something “new” that is actually quite old (in ‘Net years). The day you realize you are in effect a “gray beard” is both comforting and disturbing.
So what is the solution?
It would help if we could get back to basics WRT the job at hand. As a former colleague recently pointed out, when “contract administration” becomes a part of a functional job description you know we’re approaching a point of no return. Contracts and contractors play an important role in this business, but people sign up with their Uncle to be collectors, analysts, scientists: not COTRs. If you want contracting staff, hire them.
Call up the reserve. Creation of an intel reserve was a part of the intel reform legislation, but I’m not aware of any major developments on that front. We can debate the merits of different structures, categories of participation, etc., but the idea that we let generations of talent just walk out the door when they’ve still potentially productive (albeit on a different level and pace than before) is ludicrous.
Real mentorship. Creating a database, populating it with the names of veteran staff, and letting it collect dust is not a mentorship program. New hires accustomed to being “special” and having a wall full of “everybody wins” medals are going to adjust to life in the crucible like, well, children. These folks need the calm, seasoned hands of those who are not too busy dealing with the flail of the day. If you leave this up to the mid-careerists it’ll never get done.
Make it easy to stay. Real pay-for-performance for starters (and don’t lowball the kids; they’ll just flee to the private sector first chance they get). Also consider a wide variety of very modest perks that would take the edge off of a stressful job in a stress-inducing town (see briefings on Compensation and Quality of Life).

2 comments for “fighting the long war with the jr. varsity

  1. Michael Tanji
    March 13, 2008 at 9:07 AM

    And they wonder why employee churn is an issue . . .

  2. Mick Kraut
    March 12, 2008 at 4:54 PM

    I have a good friend very experienced in web development and project mgmt. He recently signed on with DHS to spearhead a parcel of internal WebDev efforts…the first class they sent him to?
    COTR training…

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