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FCC bureau chiefs warn of impending brain drain

The Federal Communications Commission faces a major brain drain as many of its engineers become eligible for retirement during the next few years and it must compete with the private sector to hire from the same pool of skilled labor, bureau chiefs from the FCC warned the agency's commissioners on Thursday.

During the FCC's regularly scheduled monthly meeting, the agency's eight bureau chiefs also said that fast-changing technologies will pose short- and long-term policy challenges to regulators as they try to keep pace and anticipate future market trends.

Bruce Franca, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology, said that 30 percent to 40 percent of FCC engineers are approaching retirement in the next few years. He urged the agency to find ways to retain and attract talent, including offering more competitive salaries and educational incentives.

"We need to build a kind of solid base of technical and academic excellence and consider ways to improve our understanding of market development," said Dorothy Attwood, chief of the Common Carrier Bureau. "We also need to improve our employee retention and development," she said, noting that her bureau often serves "as the true training ground for law firms and industry."

Several panelists testified that to optimize resources, the agency should consider organization changes, and build on human capital. "We need to understand the industry the way that industry trains their own people," said Cable Bureau Chief Deborah Latham.

While internal challenges at the FCC took center stage, the bureau chiefs also addressed more general telecommunications issues.

Thomas Sugrue, chief of the Wireless Bureau, highlighted the fact that "spectrum availability will certainly be an issue," noting how competing standards in spectrum policy would increasingly come into conflict.

Similarly, several bureau chiefs reiterated the need to keep a regulatory environment that favored efficiency and innovation. Latham expressed the idea that the agency should incorporate a "safe harbor" policy for new technologies that do not neatly fall into FCC-defined services. "Let's create some kind of safe harbor or monitor for [new technologies] to allow them to grow."

During a press conference following the meeting, FCC Chairman Michael Powell gave no firm indication of how the agency would act on the recommendations. He said the meeting served as a tool to assess the FCC's agenda, take stock of what issues will be facing the agency over the next few years, and where to direct resources to meet a changing market and industry while remaining focused on serving the public interest.

He denied that the meeting was an answer to congressional criticism of the agency's processes. He also maintained that personnel shakeups, which are likely to result after the departure of commissioners such as Harold Furchtgott-Roth, would not deter the FCC from pursuing its own brand of reform.