Pentagon Brain Drain
The Pentagon is losing out to Google and other high tech companies in the quest to hire the best scientific minds, Phil Taubman reports for the NYT.
[Paul] Kaminski’s generation of engineers, responsible for many of the most successful military projects of the 1970s and ’80s, is aging and fewer of the nation’s top young engineers, software developers and mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech companies and other civilian firms that provide better pay than the military or its contractors, and greater cachet — what one former military industry engineer called “geek credit.”
One measure of this shift can be found at the Air Force: Through a combination of budget cuts, the demands of fighting two wars and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top engineers, officials said, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the core Air Force acquisition staff has fallen 35 percent to 40 percent in the past 14 years.
So what? The Pentagon can just outsource the work to these geniuses, just paying when they need them, right? Not so much.
At a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman, Carl Levin, D-Mich., said cost overruns on military projects, while long a problem, had “reached crisis proportions,” and he called for the creation of an internal Pentagon office to oversee costs.
A recent GAO study of 95 military projects worth $1.6 trillion reported projected cost overruns totaling $295 billion, or 40 percent, and an average delay of 21 months. A prime culprit was often deficient engineering management. By comparison, the study found that the Pentagon’s 75 major programs in 2000 were 27 percent over budget and 16 months behind.
Despite the popular conception, the federal government does manage to hire quite a number of extraordinary people and Defense, State, and the Intelligence Community get more than their fair share of them. But it’s not likely that those people are going to ever be able to compete on a financial compensation or “geek cred” basis with Google and Microsoft. The federal service is likely going to have to continue to attract people on the basis of psychic rewards like “making a difference,” “service to country,” and the opportunity to work with “the kind of people who enjoy jumping out of airplanes.”