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Top Talent Won’t Pick Pentagon for Pay

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and whoever is the acquisition czar will face enormous difficulties in hiring large numbers of acquisition experts to help fix the broken weapons acquisition system.

That is the consensus of several congressional aides, two acquisition experts and several industry experts I’ve spoken with over the last week.

In his big budget speech, Gates declared his intention to hire 4,100 acquisition pros in 2010, with a goal of raking in a total of 9,000 government acquisition professionals by 2015.

“It’s a nice idea but I just don’t see how they can find the people, the engineers especially, that they are going to want,” said one of the country’s most experienced acquisition experts who works in the Pentagon. “If someone can get a job with a company that pays half again as much as they will earn working for the government, how are they going to get anyone with experience? And so few of the new graduates are American citizens that it’s going to be hard to find enough of them to start with. Add the signing bonuses and other incentives the companies can offer to them and it’s going to be very hard to attract more than a few hundred to government service each year.”

A congressional aide who would like to see the acquisition corps increased and improved, argued that the Pentagon should focus less on hiring lost of people in a fairly short time and work harder at identifying the skill sets needed, the amount of experience needed and then figure out how many to hire and to do it at medium speed so that the government doesn’t end up with another big spike that will have to be leveled off or replaced later on.

“You don’t want to have that bathtub shaped graph staring us in the face again,” the aide said, referring to the standard graphics showing the enormous drop coming as Baby Boomers retire from the acquisition force.

The veteran acquisition professional said Gates was spurred to hire more people by the terrible performance of the weapons buying system. But hiring inexperienced people will be difficult and they won’t know enough to make much of a difference for at least six or seven years. And he predicted Gates would find it virtually impossible to hire many middle level or senior people from industry – patriotism notwithstanding – because the government just can’t offer enough material incentives to attract them for more than a few years. And if they come and go that churn will create a whole new set of problems and costs.

It's strictly anecdotal, but a quick peek at the Defense Acquisition University's hiring page shows 12 professor slots open at Fort Belvoir and another six positions at other locations. The top pay available is $150,000 but most of the jobs offer salaries closer to $100,000. Granted, those are primarily teaching jobs, but DAU professors also serve as consultants to help solve the government's toughest acquisition problems. Offering that sort of money to attract experienced industry people is likely to prove extremely challenging. Of course, the current economic climate should help Gates, but none of the experts thought it would solve the basic problems the Gates' effort faces.

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