Retired officials warn BRAC could cause civilian brain drain

The Defense Department's base realignment and closure process has generated concern from retired military officials who warn that valuable civilian workers will retire or find private sector jobs instead of relocating.

Last month, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., raised the issue of a brain drain during a town hall meeting in Northern Virginia. At that meeting a large number of Defense civilian employees indicated that they would seek other employment in the Washington area rather than move.

In May, Defense officials proposed closing 33 major facilities nationwide, realigning 29 others, and closing or realigning hundreds of smaller military locations. Those recommendations have gone to the nine-member BRAC commission, and that panel in turn will pass its revised proposals to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president and Congress are required to accept or reject the closures and realignments in their entirety.

In the past week, several retired senior military officials have said that they share Davis' concern about a brain drain, because that phenomenon played out in previous BRAC rounds. The difference now, however, is the country is at war and can ill-afford to lose talented workers, said retired Rear Adm. George Strohsahl, who was involved in the 1991 and 1993 BRAC rounds and did preliminary work for the 1995 BRAC closings.

"This appears to me to be a disregard for intellectual capital in the name of some kind of efficiency," Strohsahl said. He specifically criticized a proposed realignment of workers from coastal Ventura Country, Calif., to China Lake, Calif., in the high desert. These workers, he said, provide technology and intelligence support for overseas deployments.

"The nature of the work is extremely technical, they are on the cutting edge. But that capability-for some period of time-will likely be lost," Strohsahl said. "Maybe 10 [percent] to 15 percent of the people will move. Some of those will go back because they will find out they don't like it at China Lake."

Defense officials will not speculate on the percentage of workers moving between sites this early in the BRAC process, according to Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood. He acknowledged that some will leave the federal workforce instead of relocating, but "a lot of them…will say, 'Sure, I don't mind moving'."

Flood said it was "too early" in the process to comment on the issue.

Several other former Defense officials, however, share the brain drain concern. Retired Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney, now the president of Monmouth University, said, "These people are easily hired in most places; they do not have to move."

"Historically, even when moving from one robust locale like central New Jersey to Maryland, inside the Beltway, one notes that less than 20 percent move," Gaffney said. "When one moves to a less robust locale it will be worse, because these sophisticated workers are also looking at schools, spouse employment and contact with others in their fields."

He agreed with Strohsahl that it is risky to disrupt the civilian workforce during wartime. Gaffney said Defense officials have been "sounding loud alarms" about the need for more science and engineering personnel. He predicted that when the BRAC closures and realignments are put into place, thousands of qualified technical workers will leave the federal workforce.

"It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstitute a workforce of that size in a very short time, if one can even find the supply," Gaffney said. A "large disruption in critical defense programs is sure to result. Who pays the price for that? Can we afford that disruption now, when war has been become such a huge issue?"

Mike Marshall worked for about 20 years in management positions for Navy laboratory operations before retiring recently. He was involved in previous BRAC procedures and estimated this time about 25 percent of a workforce will move with a realignment or closing. He noted that older workers, or employees with more technical skills, are slightly less likely to move.

"We are worried about having enough Americans to go into science and engineering, especially with security clearances," Marshall said. "My concern is that we are going to dump a few thousand more as a result of this BRAC process and then worry about how to hire them back."

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