Competition for talent remains fierce. Businesses — be they locally owned, nonprofits or industry juggernauts — are competing for talent. The military’s recruiting apparatus is working overtime in its efforts to recruit talent. The problem is the private sector has the position of advantage. They own the high ground, if you will — especially in the fervent push to recruit a viable, civilian workforce in the defense industry.

Bottom line up front: If we fail to accelerate change, the Department of Defense will certainly lose out on talent. The continuity and expertise required for mission advancement and sustainment will at best atrophy and at worst evaporate. Foundational services and support will suffer. Readiness will erode. Morale will decline.

Today’s private-sector business models outpace archaic DoD hiring practices, creating barriers to deliver talent swiftly and efficiently. The agility to win or maintain a competitive advantage in the hiring arena requires change, starting with efforts to recruit and retain government civilians.

The entry portal to the federal employee hiring market is a glaring barrier.

The stated mission of USAJobs.gov is to connect job seekers with federal employment opportunities across the United States and around the world. But to be blunt, the site makes myEval look efficient. It’s branded poorly and people without a DoD background have no idea what USAJobs is. Once on the site, the application process is abysmal, driving people in some cases to submit 10-plus page resumes and additional documents. In effect, it is a system handing employees to the outside world on a silver platter. Those who manage to break through, face a test in patience and additional shortcomings of bureaucracy to include delayed job notifications. From the application process to onboarding employees, in most cases, it takes upwards of six months to deliver a teammate to government service.

This hiring system is unacceptable, especially in the face of immediate need.

It would be great if the service chiefs of staff, Congress and other senior officials could go into USAJobs, apply for a job under a different name, test the system, and see how they fare.

In addition to the cumbersome hiring process, there is a policy severely hampering the prospect of retaining top talent: the waiting period. Many military personnel who depart military service are required to wait for six months before they are allowed to serve as a federal civilian employee.

The question many ask, and rightfully so, is “Why?”

When the federal government is faced with challenges to successfully recruit talented people, the need for a 180-day “cooling off” period should be questioned. If this time gap cannot be closed more rapidly, the DoD will continue to lose critical talent to those agencies and businesses able to hire the next day — and without unnecessary restrictions or hurdles. At some remote and northern tier locations, retired military personnel are a primary talent pool for filling federal civilian employee responsibilities.

Despite a need for change and increased flexibility, the status quo remains firmly intact. Talented, experienced people take their skill sets to the private sector. Why? We cannot expect different results from the same processes proven to be cumbersome and ineffectual. We get what we tolerate.

In addition to a USAJobs hiring process revamp, additional changes are required to attract civilian talent to the DoD work force:

Advertising

We need to gear marketing efforts toward recruiting people for civilian positions, not just filling the military ranks. Many people erroneously believe you must wear the uniform to serve. National defense industry recruiting campaigns specifically target uniform-wearing service members, not the civilian work force. This needs to change, especially at certain harder-to-fill locations.

For example, in remote areas, such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, talent pools are considerably smaller than bases near major cities. With a population of 60,000 people, Great Falls is hours away from the next city. In a state whose population is barely over 1 million, the self-imposed delay to consider recently retired military members immediately significantly impacts Malmstrom Air Force Base and other similar locations where the experienced workforce pool is limited.

Recognizing the urgency surrounding the need to inspire, recruit and retain civilian talent, we have partnered with local education institutions and the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce to take a long-term view on what the base of the future will face as the installation prepares for the arrival of the LGM-35A Sentinel weapon system.

We are strengthening partnerships and pioneering new hiring programs, such as joining forces to forge Malmstrom Works on base, and supporting the chamber’s dedicated workforce development initiative called Central Montana Works!. We have taken both a long-term-and short-term approach to attracting talent, supporting the latter’s Worlds of Work career-exploration event targeting students in hopes they will see a future of service as a uniformed service member or DoD civilian by interacting with our airmen and gaining exposure to mission sets; however, more is required. Nurturing young talent who seek to remain near their hometowns and serve our nation in something other than direct military service is a must.

Skillbridge revamp

Skillbridge is an incredible program. It responsibly transitions military members into the civilian world; however, it is rather shortsighted in being primarily corporate focused. DoD should be able to benefit from Skillbridge as well. Why not adjust Skillbridge to enable military members to “intern” at federal employment sites where additional manpower is required, or at locations where members might see themselves settling down in retirement?

The program provides sustained experience and potentially retains talent in areas of need. Flexibility here can be particularly helpful in hard-to-recruit areas.

More competitive pay

Prior to last year’s mandatory bump in pay to a minimum of $15, the federal government team that conducted the wage survey, gave Non-Appropriated Fund employees a 41- to 61-cent raise. These are people charged with many of our support services, to include childcare. We must do better.

The DoD invests considerably in certain occupations (pilot retention and bonuses), yet despite highlighting the significance of areas such as cyber, pay bands languish behind civilian competitors in competitive wages.

Without increased locality pay, added local incentives and accelerated promotion at northern tier and remote locations, we leave ourselves susceptible long term to inadequately supporting a nuclear-capable mission set relying on effective command and control, and one benefitting from enhanced cyber defense. The cyber realm is just one area of significant shortfall. Trade professions such as electricians, plumbers, roofers and concrete workers continue to be in high demand. These skilled tradesmen will be difficult to find locally once the Sentinel buildup is upon us, as the allure of increased pay and the esteem of working on a national security-related program promise to poach existing talent from area businesses.

Make adjustment to key areas

Increase the number of Appropriated Fund positions for our childcare providers, because it can help recruit and retain people while sustaining quality of life, services and support. The Air Force has developed a few needed initiatives to recruit talent; however, more needs to be done. The business model best able to figure out childcare will win over talent. With this endeavor in mind, we partnered with the Great Falls Public Schools’ superintendent to establish a pilot transitional-kindergarten program and plan a launch of an internship program at the Child Development Center to help alleviate childcare issues and bolster education.

We talk all the time about modernization of weapon systems and aircraft, but we remain stuck in accepting stale ways of recruiting and retaining people — especially our civilians.

If we do not accelerate change in our hiring and recruiting practices, it will prove to be a case of too little, too late. Missions and people will suffer, especially in smaller markets supporting critical mission sets. There is only so much that can be done at the local level for areas in need of congressional and DoD-level support. The time has come to start implementing change. The time to help is now.

Col. Chris Karns is the 341st Mission Support Group commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or U.S. Armed Forces.

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