Exclusive

In Marine Corps, long-outdated job descriptions cause recruiting, retention challenges

The Marine Corps is in the midst of a sweeping review of its information technology workforce, the early results of which have confirmed what top officials suspected: many employees’ official position descriptions don’t have much to do with what they actually do for a living.

The root cause is that many of those descriptors, particularly for civilian IT employees, have not been updated in well over a decade. The consequences go well beyond the administrivia of possibly inaccurate paperwork. Without an accurate picture of what people do all day, it’s difficult to build a workforce strategy that successfully recruits, trains, pays and retains the scarce IT and cyber professionals the military needs amidst competing job offers from private industry.

“It’s been a lot easier for individuals to just migrate from one job to another without really changing their roles and responsibilities, and if I don’t have the right label on what specific task they’re performing, I can’t look at their career progression, I can’t set a pay scale,” Brig. Gen. Dennis Crall, the Marines’ chief information officer, said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “What I end up with, compounding over a number of years, is a workforce that looks one way on paper and quite different when I look at what those individuals are doing. Getting a handle on knowing what people do, making sure they’re trained and compensated properly for what they’re doing is what we’re after.”

Online Chat: Beth Killoran, deputy assistant secretary for Information Technology and chief information officer at HHS, on March 28.

The Marines hired outside HR consulting firms to help conduct a zero-based review of their IT and cyber workforce, beginning with the Marine Corps Cyber Operations Group in Quantico, Virginia, one of the service’s largest IT organizations.

Advertisement

There, they interviewed employees about their day-to-day tasks, examined their pay scales, performance and roles and responsibilities, comparing their real-world jobs with how they’re currently coded in government personnel databases. The same study group will move next to Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Virginia to conduct a similar review.

Crall said the findings, while still preliminary, showed that the IT workforce is top-heavy with management, in addition to having inaccurate descriptions of its employees’ work roles.

“In some cases — and I don’t know yet how endemic it is — we’ve had too large of a management layer and not enough of an operational layer,” he said.

The study also highlighted high turnover rates within the IT workforce that the Marine Corps had not been adequately tracking or addressing.

“We’re not retaining individuals the way we should be, particularly the entry-level forces,” Crall said. “Part of that comes from the whole certification process and the appropriate pay scale to make sure we’re bringing people in who are qualified, getting timely training to people who are in the training pipeline. We also need to make sure our rate schedule actually reflects the work that people are doing. The other piece that’s coming out is that we have too much guidance feeding into these organizations, and it’s confusing as to how to follow direction from higher headquarters. In some cases, the policies run counter to each other. We need a better way to manage that workflow. ”

Crall said the concern about management’s lack of visibility into the IT workforce has mainly to do with civilian employees: The Marines, like the other military services, have worked to update the military occupational specialties of uniformed service members so that they reflect the modern technology landscape. In the case of the Marine Corps, much of the activity has focused on the “0600,” or Basic Communications Marine specialty, a field in which the service has invested heavily to train enlisted troops to build and maintain IT networks.

“They’re going to help us meet the challenge of the commandant’s operational concept for how we’re going to fight in the future, but we need to do a lot more with the institutions we have right now,” he said.

To the extent those institutions are populated by civilians, their workforce challenges are compounded by a governmentwide freeze on the hiring of new federal employees.

DoD’s interpretation of guidance from the Office of Management and Budget has allowed some narrow exceptions to the freeze for employees who are “required for cybersecurity and cyberspace operations or planning,” but in the Marines’ case, each request for an exemption will have to go through a detailed process, adjudicated by the deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs and the office of the secretary of the Navy in order to certify that a new hire is vital to public safety or national security.

“We felt effects from the freeze the second it went into effect, because we have people in the pipeline we’re trying to hire,” Crall said. “We’re exploring whether the exemptions allow us go to where we need to go, so I’m not sounding an alarm. Time will tell. I’m optimistic that for the folks that are most critical for us to hire, there’s a way to get them into those positions.”