Each of the military services has faced workforce challenges in their maintenance depots over the past several years. Congress has responded with new authorities that let the Defense Department sidestep the traditional hiring system to fill those vacancies.
It’s taken a while to make use of direct hiring, but military officials now say the authorities have turned out to be invaluable.
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Congress gave the services and Defense agencies broad latitude to directly hire as many personnel as they feel they need in their maintenance depots as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, and later extended the authority through 2021. As long as DoD components can show that they’re matching job-seekers to relevant qualifications, they’re allowed to bypass traditional features of the federal hiring system like competitive ranking and veterans preference.
Direct hire’s use has grown significantly over the past year. In 2017 and 2018, the Army used direct hire to fill about 1,200 jobs in its depots. It has used the authority for more than twice that many hires in the last year alone, said Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics.
“The direct hiring authority has been absolutely decisive for the last couple of years,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “It took us a couple of years to fully implement that authority, but we hit our stride this last year and ended up hiring over 3,500 people.”
It’s a similar story in the Air Force’s government-operated depots, where direct hiring has become the rule, not the exception. At the Air Force Sustainment Center, 74% of all external hires in 2019 were direct hires.
“We use it at every level of our workforce,” said Lt. Gen. Donald Kirkland, the center’s commander. “On the upper end – trained engineers and software folks, which is for us a growing enterprise, it has been a tremendous tool to give them an on-the-spot job offer. And once they join, they like what they’re doing and our retention rate reflects that.”
Each of the services see the authorities as a way to help replace their aging maintenance workforces, but the Navy has also used them to help it pull off a surge of new hiring in its shipyards.
Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, said NAVSEA’s workload has increased by 25% in its four public shipyards since 2010. That meant the Navy had to hire 9,000 new employees to keep up.
“This growth was achieved about one year ahead of schedule and is allowing us to stop the growth in the backlog of work and begin working off that backlog earlier than planned,” he said. “However, the rapid growth of the workforce has resulted in a less experienced workforce. Fifty percent have less than five years of experience. So to get our new hires train more efficiently, the shipyards have transformed how they train their new employees with learning centers that use both virtual learning tools and a hands-on work. The net result of these learning centers at the shipyards have cut the time to create a productive worker from the time they’re hired by more than 50% over the past four years.”
Military logistics leaders say the new authorities have also dramatically sped up the hiring process itself. In the Army, for example, the average time to hire new workers at its depots and arsenals was 114 days in 2017. By last year, it was just 85 days. The Air Force, meanwhile, cut its average hiring time from 183 days to just 65 days.
Kirkland said the new hiring mechanisms seem to have had an indirect effect on employee retention as well.
“Simply by having a steady influx of trained personnel we can train in order to keep the production lines going, that has a morale increase. As we put more and more work into the same facilities and same workforces, that has a beneficial effect in keeping every employee gainfully employed and providing upward mobility with supervisory opportunities,” he said. “That’s been our experience with respect to software engineers. We have an attrition about 7 percent to 9 percent annually, and that is right there with industry, even as we grow the enterprise about 6 percent a year.”
Since the 1960s, DoD has had regulations in place that bar it from hiring military officers who’ve just retired as civilians until they’ve waited through a 180-day cooling-off period. The rules were meant to keep DoD organizations from violating merit system principles by creating positions for departing officers – or forcing longtime civil servants out of their jobs to make way for newly retired officers.
But Congress is considering eliminating the 180-day rule as part of its negotiations on the 2020 NDAA. The logistics chiefs from each of the military services testified they supported a relaxation of the 180-day rule during last week’s hearing, including a version that would leave the hiring restrictions in place for more senior civilian positions at the GS-14 level and above.
But Moore said by and large the Navy is focused on hiring young talent, with the goal of keeping them in government service for an entire career.
“I think we need to emphasize that a lot of this workforce that we have today, the blue collar workforce, the welders, the electricians – we don’t need college graduates. And we need to actually value the artisans that actually get in there and do the really hard work of maintaining these depots and make that something a young man or woman today could get into and spend a lot of time,” he said. “I saw data the other day that if you get trained as a welder at age eighteen, by the time you’re sixty-five years old, you’ll have made more money than someone who went to medical school and became a general practitioner. So I think more emphasis on valuing those skill sets and doing STEM education early is something that we should keep doing.”