Military losing skilled, young engineers

Engineers used to be responsible for the most successful military projects in the 1970s and '80s, but now young engineers are joining high-tech companies and other cilivian firms, which offer higher pay and "geek credit."

06/27/2008


Over the last decade, even as spending on new military projects has reached its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly been losing the people most skilled at managing New York Times .

The lastother civilian firms that provide not just better pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet — what one former defense industry engineer called “geek credit.” 

When Paul G. Kaminski completed his graduate work in 1971 with degrees from M.I.T. and Stanford, he started building advanced airplanes for the Air Force. By the time he stopped several decades later, he had played a pivotal role in producing a flock of new weapons, including radar-evading stealth aircraft.

Precise numbers are scarce, but 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 say, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the Air Force’s core acquisition staff has fallen 35% to 40% over the last 14 years.

The downsizing “has taken a toll in our inability to refresh our aging acquisition work force,” said the Air Force’s engineering chief, Jon S. Ogg.

A recent Government Accountability Office study of 95 military projects worth $1.6 trillion reported projected cost overruns totaling $295 billion, or 26%, 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 6% over budget and 16 months behind.)

“We’re having awful problems with the execution of defense programs,” said Kaminski, who was the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive from 1994 to 1997. “It’s absolutely critical to start becoming more efficient, more effective.”

Kaminski is devoting much of his time as a private citizen to that goal, leading a high-level task force and visiting university campuses and military contractors to proselytize for better engineering management.

As he and other experts explain it, the central problem is a breakdown in the most basic element of any big military project: accurately assessing at the outset whether the technological goals are attainable and affordable, then managing the engineering to ensure that hardware and software are properly designed, tested and integrated.

The technical term for the discipline is systems engineering. Without it, projects can turn into chaotic, costly failures.

Increasingly, that has become the case. What is more, the loss of government expertise has magnified the difficulties associated with another trend: In recent years, the Pentagon has transferred more and more oversight responsibility to its contractors, who themselves often lack sufficient systems-engineering skill and the incentives needed to hold down costs.





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