Air Force and Navy Confront a 'Brain Drain'

Lucrative pay in civilian economy and concern about family life spur quiet exodus of skilled personnel.

Like many Air Force commanders around the United States, Col. Dan Leaf is learning to deal with an insidious new threat. At his high-speed F-16 base in the Midlands of South Carolina, he has watched in recent months as pilots, mechanics, air-traffic controllers, and computer specialists have abandoned the Air Force for civilian jobs.

Their departure is part of a quiet exodus of skilled personnel across both the Air Force and Navy that is raising serious concerns about future military readiness.

It is being driven in part by lucrative pay offers in the booming civilian economy and worry about the toll that the military takes on family life. The "brain drain" is described by some as the worst to hit the armed services in a quarter century. In addition to a well-publicized pilot shortage, military officials point out that:

* The Air Force is expected to be 500 air-traffic controllers short of its required 3,000 later this fall. It also faces a dearth of about 500 crew chiefs for F-16 fighters.

* The Navy, which is supposed to maintain a level of 38 percent mid-career officers at sea, is keeping just 25 percent on ships and 32 percent on subs.

* The Navy is also shy more than 600 sailors who fire weapons aboard ships and 1,2000 electronics technicians.

"This is easily the most significant personnel problem we've faced in my 23 years of service," says Colonel Leaf, who commands the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base here. One Navy officer who did not want to be identified describes his service's plight this way: "We're standing at the edge of a cliff looking over. We haven't jumped or been pushed, but if we don't turn this around in the next year, we'll be in dire straits."

The personnel problems cannot be easily solved, policy experts say, because there is no single cause. The reasons are varied and include burnout, frequent deployments, declining military benefits, salary disparities with high-tech civilian jobs, and the decline of corporate and institutional loyalty in America.

Money won't solve it

Some believe that simply spending more money won't work, largely because service members frequently leave for lifestyle reasons - often to spend more time with their families.

"This is a shifting of the tectonic plates," says Len Fullenkamp, a retired Army officer and historian at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

The personnel woes described by Air Force and Navy leaders are not pronounced in the Army and Marines, which have far fewer technical jobs. In recent years, however, both have closely watched the retention of mid-career officers, who have left at rates above historical norms.

Military officers, like enlisted computer programmers or air-traffic controllers, are hot commodities in an economy that hasn't been this strong in the 25-year history of the all-volunteer force.

Some analysts and retired officers believe the declining retention rates pose a daunting threat to the volunteer military. While the services have yet to reach the crisis stage of the late 1970s "hollow force," the phrase is increasingly associated with today's military. Chuck Horner, a retired Air Force general who directed the air campaign in the Gulf War, sees strong parallels. "This is a big national problem," says General Horner, whose career spanned the dark post-Vietnam era.

The current high-tech exodus is described by some as a hidden threat. Overall retention rates for the four services are not in terrible shape. But the most skilled and marketable enlisted service members in the Air Force and Navy are leaving at well above historic rates.

The problem is especially troubling because in many cases it's the Air Force's and Navy's most valued - and hard to replace - people who are leaving. Unlike IBM or Microsoft, the services cannot simply place a newspaper ad to get new programmers or jet mechanics.

Not everyone is so alarmed about the exodus, though. Department of Defense (DOD) officials downplay declining retention in the Air Force and Navy, saying the current woes are part of historic cycles. Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a DOD spokesman, says "these kinds of problems are not new" and that the services are acting to stem the exodus.

Larry Korb, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agrees. Mr. Korb says that even if the US loses some of its combat capability, it's not important. "Who has a better military than we do? It's not that serious," he says.

But some who study workplace trends say what's happening in the military is not necessarily a cycle that's likely to go away. J. Walker Smith, an authority on workplace issues for Yankelovich Partners Inc., says American workers today are fundamentally different than they were even a decade ago.

Less loyalty

Following the traumatic corporate downsizing of the early 1990s, employees care less about the company, move frequently to new jobs, and are less likely to spend long hours away from families.

This fundamental shift - and growing estrangement between corporations and workers - has profound meaning for the military, he says: "The military may have to redefine what it means to keep employees."

The surging high-tech economy has certainly opened new opportunities to skilled service members, especially enlisted ones who can double or triple their salaries in the private sector. While the Air Force and other services have cash bonuses to keep programmers and other highly-sought troops, the differences are still large.

Staff Sgt. Emilio Valdez, who helps maintain a large computer network at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, is expecting to earn anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 when he leaves the military next year.

But he says he's not leaving because of money. "My next job, I don't want my family to have to move," Sergeant Valdez explains.

The military's growing challenge to keep technically skilled people has been masked for several years. Since the Gulf War, the services have been drawing down and in many cases had too many people in certain jobs.

Take Valdez's field. With a shortage of computer-network operators nationally, the military's enlisted specialists are often flooded with offers. The Air Force is keeping only about one-third of its young programmers.

John Grisillo, a retired Army officer who recruits former military members for corporate America, believes the decline of loyalty that has swept the private sector will impact the armed forces. "People realize they have options and many will exercise them to the chagrin and detriment of the military," he says.

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