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Poor economy helps change dynamics of BRAC

May. 1, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Army Materiel Command expects to complete its move to a new headquarters at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., by mid-July.
Army Materiel Command expects to complete its move to a new headquarters at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., by mid-July. (Army Materiel Command)

As the Defense Department enters the last phase of its Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) process, officials have noticed a surprising trend.

Because of the weak economy and job market, twice as many civilian employees in some places are relocating to keep their jobs than expected. Defense-wide statistics are unavailable, but the Army said some of its commands reported up to two-thirds of their affected civilian employees are relocating. During previous BRAC rounds, only 25 percent of Army civilians moved.

This presents unexpected opportunities and possibly costs for Defense agencies. By holding onto thousands of experienced workers, the agencies retain years or decades of institutional knowledge. And they don't have to spend the time and energy and deal with lost productivity hiring and training new replacements while they are also busy relocating and reorganizing.

On the other hand, said Brian Lepore, the Government Accountability Office's director of Defense capabilities and management, the agencies could miss an opportunity to cut payroll costs more steeply through the BRAC process. New recruits most likely are younger workers who would draw lower salaries than the older employees they would replace. Defense may also need to pay more in relocation expenses and assistance to the added employees who are transferring.

"The chief benefit is you would retain that experience base," Lepore said. "It can take time, in any given position, to become fully familiar with the work, or how to do it successfully. But it's hard to say what the costs might be, because we haven't looked at it."

It's unclear how consistent these trends are. The Marine Corps said that of the 232 civilian positions that will finish relocating by Sept. 15 when all BRAC moves must be finished only 30 current employees, or 13 percent, will actually move. The Air Force and Navy were unable to provide statistics by press time.

But officials at two Army commands undergoing BRAC changes detailed the shifts in interviews with Federal Times.

When Fort Monmouth, N.J., employees were surveyed a year after BRAC plans were announced in 2005, less than 30 percent said they expected to relocate to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to keep their jobs. Another 30 percent were undecided, and the rest said they would not relocate.

But over the next several years, "the vast majority of those on the fence changed their mind," said Gary Martin, the senior civilian leader at Aberdeen. Today, as many as 65 percent of the 5,500 civilian employees at Monmouth mostly software engineers, computer scientists, program managers, support staffers, and electrical and mechanical engineers are expected to move with their jobs.

And about 360 civilian employees are moving from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., as Army Materiel Command shifts its headquarters by mid-July, said Bill Marriott, deputy chief of staff of the command. That is about half the headquarters' civilian staff, and double the rate of past BRACs.

Martin and Marriott agree the weak job market is likely the key reason why employees are relocating in such high numbers to keep their jobs.

And with Monmouth closing after 94 years, Martin said, the market for government jobs in the area largely dried up.

In addition, many regions that are home to military bases are heavily dependent on those bases for economic activity, so when military facilities move away, the non-government job market gets tighter as well.

The Pentagon was unable to provide departmentwide statistics on how many civilian employees likely would move with their jobs as part of BRAC. The 2005 BRAC round called for closing 24 major bases, realigning another 24 major bases and taking 765 other smaller actions by Sept. 15, 2011. The Pentagon predicted this would cut 12,285 civilian jobs and require 66,578 other civilian Defense positions to relocate. In all, 123,000 military and civilian positions will be relocated.

Helping thousands of employees who are uprooting their lives and moving hundreds of miles is just one of the challenges officials face. Many other employees who can't or won't relocate need assistance finding other jobs or retiring. And even during this tumultuous period, work goes on. Some agencies have to keep operating with their staffs divided between two locations.

"There's a lot of churn going on," Marriott said. "This has been one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced … to continue to meet mission accomplishments in a split-base scenario."

But officials say BRAC has also given them opportunities to streamline their operations and adopt new technologies that help them work more efficiently.

Making the move

Some employees warmed to the idea of moving after learning more about their prospective new homes, officials said.

Marriott said AMC met with employees early on, in both large and small groups, and posted information online. Employees were also told about relocation and homeowner assistance programs. The command brought in representatives from Alabama and Tennessee towns near Redstone to answer employees' questions about schools, medical facilities, housing, the local culture and other facets of the community. A website run by Huntsville's Chamber of Commerce allows employees' spouses and older children to search for federal and private job opportunities in their new home areas.

"Trying to convince folks to move out of the D.C. area was very difficult," Marriott said. "That kind of information, to them, was very important."

Martin said the Army organized bus trips to introduce on-the-fence employees to the Maryland communities around Aberdeen, and opened an office with information about the new community. This helped some Monmouth employees particularly those whose families worked there for generations and who felt personally hurt by the closure reconsider the possibility of life elsewhere.

"It was not uncommon for people to have negative connotations of what life was like in Aberdeen," Martin said. "Ÿ‘I hear the schools are bad,' or ‘There's not much for housing.' People were living off these rumors, so when the office opened and people could talk to Realtors and the economic development office, it really started to change their perception."

Monmouth employees transferring to Aberdeen are finding it difficult to get fair prices for their old homes, when so many others are selling at the same time and a major job center is vanishing. At least two-thirds of those employees have taken advantage of the Defense National Relocation Program, where Defense buys a house at fair market value if it doesn't sell after 60 days, Martin said.

Staying behind

Some employees chose not to move. Marriott said 125 employees at Fort Belvoir took early retirement. Another 117 people registered for a priority placement program to help them find other jobs in Defense, and 65 of them have so far found new work through the program. AMC offered resume-writing classes to help other employees look for work elsewhere in the Northern Virginia area, and managers have tried to accommodate those employees' job searches, Marriott said.

Many of Monmouth's contracting officers chose not to move, so Aberdeen had to hire replacements. About two-thirds of the 5,500 civilian employee jobs at Monmouth have moved to Aberdeen. The remaining positions will move over the next three or four months.

Army Materiel Command didn't have a hard time finding high-quality job seekers in the Huntsville area to replace employees who chose not to move, Marriott said. The roughly 360 civilian employees who have relocated or are preparing to move fill about half of the roughly 720 transferred positions. Locally hired employees fill the rest.

The command took the opportunity to restructure its workforce and decide what skill sets it was likely to need, and ended up hiring more logistics management and supply chain management specialists, contracting officers, scientists and business case analysts.

But the gradual shift to Alabama over the last three years has forced AMC leaders to find ways to coordinate co-workers working 700 miles apart in different time zones.

AMC has increased its use of video teleconferencing programs such as Skype. "You get a lot more by being able to see somebody, look at their face, read their body language, rather than by just being a disembodied voice," Marriott said. "Those kind of things made us a better organization."

The command is also using more programs that make it easier to collaborate and share documents online.

Personnel in Virginia schedule morning meetings slightly later so Alabama employees don't have to come in early to teleconference. And when officials set up a meeting, Marriott said, they must make it clear whether they're using Eastern or Central time.

"It can be frustrating when people show up early or late" due to confusion, Marriott said.

Workplace pressures and morale can also vary at the two sites.

"Folks down there, it's a new beginning environment," Marriott said. "There's a new building going up, new faces coming in, the future is bright. Up here, it's fair to say it's more stressful. The majority of folks have a major life event to go through, whether that is retiring, finding another job, buying or selling a house, moving."

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