• A U.S. Army specialist tracks and monitors flight hours for an RQ-11 Raven unmanned aerial vehicle. Multiple Army initiatives aim to better attract and retain a talented workforce, including those with technical skills. Credit: U.S. Army
     A U.S. Army specialist tracks and monitors flight hours for an RQ-11 Raven unmanned aerial vehicle. Multiple Army initiatives aim to better attract and retain a talented workforce, including those with technical skills. Credit: U.S. Army

U.S. Army Officials Aim to Win the War for Talent

July 15, 2020
By George I. Seffers
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New measures modernize the workforce.

The U.S. Army is implementing new programs aimed at attracting and retaining talented workers, including cyber and other information technology professionals.

The two initiatives fall under a program known as the Army Talent Alignment Program. Both initiatives currently focus on small groups within the officer corps and include pilot programs and prototypical processes that can then be rapidly expanded to the rest of the force.

The idea is to move away from a badly outdated hiring and assignment process. “At the core, what we’re trying to do is to move the Army from a very industrial age approach to how we manage people. We’re trying to move from a data-poor to a data-rich environment so we can get the most out of every officer and then eventually out of every soldier and civilian,” Maj. Gen. Joseph McGee, USA, director, Army Talent Management Task Force, while serving on a workforce panel at the virtual Army Signal Conference, which is sponsored by AFCEA.

The first initiative is replacing the Army’s traditional, centralized assignment process at Human Resources Command (HRC), in which officers are given a couple of choices and then told where they will be assigned, Gen. McGee said. “We’ve now established a system that allows us to have a conversation between the individual moving officer who sees all the different jobs that are available for him—all of them—and then we’ve pushed the hiring authority away from the central authority at HRC and moved it down to the brigade level or higher to allow them to hire their own teams.”

He described a process by which an officer an officer can apply for assignment at one place, Italy for example. The officer will go through a series of interviews, and if turned down, can then apply for a position at another location, such as Fort Campbell, Kentucky. If that interview goes well, the officer may mark Fort Campbell as the first choice, and officials at Fort Campbell can mark that officer as their first choice.

“That would be a one-to-one match that could only be broken in an extraordinary fashion,” he stated.

The Army initiated the process last winter with about 14,500 officers. “By working through this system, about 45 percent of the officers got their number one choice and a much higher level got one of their top three choices,” the general reported. “We’re refining it as we go forward, but I think it’s a fundamental transformation away from this centrally controlled system that we used to have. It’s a much more market-based approach.”

The second initiative is focused on assignments for battalion and brigade commanders. In January and February, the service introduced the Battalion Commander Assessment Program at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Instead of reviewing the officer’s file and deciding the best place to send him, the service ran the officers through a five-day process that included a height and weight test, a physical fitness test, psychometric testing with a psychological interview by a trained operational psychologist, a written test and a verbal communication score that was given to them through a panel interview. Finally, the officers went through a blind interview with a group of senior officers.  

“At the end of that and with all the information that was collected, the panel members had to make [a decision] whether this was the right officer to put in command or not,” Gen. McGee said. “This process created a 34 percent change from what we would have had with the legacy system. To set it up a different way, out of 436 officers who were selected to command, there were 150 different names going into command based on this new process.”

Additionally, the service collected data on the 750 candidates that will offer insights into the officer corps. “We think over time it is going to be transformative in terms of the way we have insights into our officer corps, where their strengths and weaknesses lay and then where they can move forward,” he said.

In September of this year, the Army will use a similar process in what Gen. McGee described as The Colonels and the Colonel/Commander Assessment Program. In October and November, the Army will hold a second Battalion Commander Assessment program, also at Fort Knox.

Such initiatives are important because the Army, like other military and government organizations, faces challenges in attracting and retaining talented people who often can make more money in the private sector. Gen. McGee indicated the Army needs to win the war for talent, a concept he credits to the Army chief of staff. “Many of these things we’re doing is an explicit recognition that the Army is entering into the war for talent.”  

Bryan Shone, director for policy and resources and the chief financial officer within the Office of the Army CIO/G-6, echoed that sentiment. “If we want to win the war for talent, we also want to do the best thing for our current and existing workforce. We don’t want to leave them behind.”

Shone cited the just-announced Quantum Leap program, which aims to “recode, reskill and upskill” up to 15,000 of its current civilian personnel working in the information technology arena. “We faced the fact that that workforce is currently not skilled to meet the emerging requirements of the future. We need different skills five, eight, 10 years from now. So, what we really need to do is to is to reimagine the IT workforce of the future.”

The service cannot, however, retrain all 15,000 immediately. “We’re going to bite off pieces at a time, and we’re going to prioritize the skills that we’re lacking the most, which are very much in that information age area, things like data management, systems analysts, application software developers, that kind of thing,” Shone said.

The Army also may end up eliminating or reducing some occupational specialties. “We’re going to have to make some tough decisions on some skills … that we’re going to have to reduce because it’s not something where we’re going to just ask for more people to solve the problem. We might reduce some telecommunications folks, some library technicians, some things that are a little bit less of a priority in the information age.”

The Quantum Leap program also shifts the focus from technical certifications to acquired skills. “Certifications are important, but it shouldn’t be the only emphasis. We really need to be looking at what kind of skills these folks have.”

Retraining likely will include virtual training courses rather than the traditional military training that can take more than two years for highly technical occupations. The platforms are available 24/7 virtually. You can hop on, you can take one of 5,000 courses. Obviously, the Army would tailor those courses to the skills that we want our workforce to have,” Shone said.

The service has received some “demo” virtual training platforms that are similar to video games, allowing individuals to train on their own time and improve skill levels. “We believe that’s more innovative. It’s definitely where academia and industry are going,” Shone said, adding that the programs can focus on both technical and leadership skills. 

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