Washington 'brain drain' to industry?

Is the huge US government in danger of losing many of its most able technical personnel -- especially qualified engineers -- to high-paying jobs in private industry?

An increasing number of analysts believe that may be happening. While the numbers of engineers in federal positions has almost doubled during the past several decades (to around 99,000), there is growing concern on the part of some officials that the quality of their engineering staffs may be declining.

Moreover, there is some growing evidence that during the past several years a number of federal agencies have been having increasing difficulty recruiting young engineering graduates right out of college, as well as attracting experienced technical personnel to Washington.

"We're having difficulty getting experienced engineers," argues Robert Bruck, who heads up the mechanical branch of the civil works division of the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington.

According to Mr. Bruck, seasoned engineers from the corps offices around the United States are often unwilling to come to Washington because of the high living costs associated with the city.

Further, he says, there is increasing difficulty in attracting graduating engineers to field offices.

While there is not believed to be any overall study pinpointing precisely to what extent Uncle Sam may be losing engineers to private industry some anlysts here suggested the following factors are affecting future hirings of experienced technical personnel:

* Private industry is competing flat-out for college graduating engineers and offering substantially higher salaries.

* Tough new ethics guidelines imposed by the Carter administration to curb abuses growing out of the "revolving door" movement of professionals between industry and federal employment are believed to be causing many qualified engineers to shy away from federal posts.

* Finally, the "anti-Washington" mood prevalent in many parts of the US is believed to be contributing to a rejection of federal employment by many qualified engineers.

According to George M. Low, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the government is in danger of losing many of its best engineers -- as well as not attracting the "most qualified" college engineering graduates.

President Low is the former program manager for the Apollo Space Program and deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

He was also chairman of a blue ribbon report by the National Academy of Science on certification procedures for the Federal Aviation Administration, released in June.

The report found evidence that the technical competence of FAA personnel was falling behind that of their counterparts in private industry.

Starting salaries for engineers being offered by private industry are running at around $22,000 annually, says Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie-Mellon University. For that reason, he asserts, most graduating engineers are now going directly to private companies rather than into government service, or continuing on for advanced degrees.

Equally significant, says Dr. Cyert, the lack of PhDs at the engineering schools to hire new faculty -- which means an inability to sharply expand the size of engineering classes.

But that in turn, he says, means even greater competition for current graduates -- with most gravitating directly to private industry.

As president Low of Rensselaer sees it, the current "problem" for the federal government is essentially threefold:

1. Thanks to a growing higher salary differential between private industry and government, younger engineers (particularly the best students) are going directly to private industry. This pattern, he suggests, is in many ways the reverse of the 1940s and '50s, when many of the most "idealistic" graduates sought federal employment.

2. Meantime, many of the most seasoned federal government engineers in their 50s are leaving federal employment for private firms because of the nature of their retirement programs. By shifting to private industry they can in effect "double dip" -- have two pensions in place by retirement.

3. The long-run danger, Mr. Low says, is that many of those remaining are the least qualified professionally.

Certainly not all are incompetent, he argues, and many are first-class professionals. But in too many cases, he suggests, those remaining rank well behind their counterparts in private industry in professional expertise.

In 1979 there were some 52,000 engineering graduates with BA degrees, compared with around 40,000 in 1969. But demand for engineers is getting larger. At the PhD level, there were around 2,800 graduates in 1979, compared with around 3,000 in 1969. Further, the percentage of foreign PhD graduates has jumped sharply, which means that a smaller pool of doctoral graduates left for US companies and federal employment.

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