Del Spurlock: Soldiers, Students, Workers

Government, Military
Delbert J. Spurlock Jr.
Delbert J. Spurlock Jr.

Soldiers, Students, Workers

The Washington Post, May 2, 1989

The approach of a new century has a way of focusing our attention on even the most ignored problems. We want to “clean up our act” by the year 2000 in a host of ways. None is more important than producing competence in the work place. Years of marginally effective education and training programs have failed to develop a work force permitting us to compete effectively in world markets.

Yet even when we develop successful “manpower” programs, we seem incapable of taking advantage of them. Military training, especially skill training, is an example. We now have the opportunity to take advantage of military training to benefit the entire society.

The Army is the largest employer in the nation. As a byproduct of satisfying its own human competency requirements, the Army is producing the most competent and flexible new entrants to the American labor force: departing soldiers. The reasons are not hard to understand. Begin with bright young recruits exploring exciting new technologies and state-of-the-art equipment; train them to meet clear missions and standards; motivate them with dedicated trainers with a personal stake in training results, and teach them in the most ethnically integrated environment in the nation. It has also helped that Army skill training is among the most expensive in the nation and that it is supported by the largest human research establishment in the Western world, the Army Research Institute.

There will be good reasons in coming budgets for trimming these training accounts, but not much. The Army will argue that training accounts at current levels are essential for combat readiness and mobilization. This is against the growing popular wisdom that Army readiness accounts, of which training is the largest, should be sacrificed in a post-INF environment to more research and development and to a maritime strategy.

The Army is right. The active Army is too small to permit any part of it to get sloppy or ill-prepared, especially when the Air Force and Navy have not created a strategic lift capability that would allow wholesale reductions in forward deployments in Europe and Korea. Furthermore, the Army has already been reduced in size in order to fund the new equipment and technology of the ’80s. It is not rational to skimp now on the training necessary to realize the impact of that technology.

The Army is also right for reasons it is reluctant to state-reasons which have to do with the potential value of the Army’s training successes to the society at large and to our competitiveness in the world. Why is such an argument difficult for the Army to make? Because the greatest fraud, waste and abuse perpetrated by the Defense Department upon the American people is the belief that defense resources are its own, not society’s, resources. This has everything to do with autonomy: “If we are going to fight the war, don’t tell us how to get ready for it.” This enshrines for defense management the principle that defense is its own reward-more importantly, its own judge.

In military training, this has been characterized by inordinate autonomy, not much different in kind from the academic freedom which shields the classroom of the tenured professor. But successful academics never forget that they prepare students for the world, not simply for graduation. The military, at the price of protecting its training methods from outside scrutiny, forfeits the opportunity to accept applause for contributing more to the society than simply defense.

This should no longer be a purely military matter. There is more successful manpower training in defense than in all of the remainder of federal and state governments combined.

If an effort at national human resource planning existed, defense training would be brought within its ambit. And an “education president” would see to it that the nation’s largest educator, and one of its most successful, played a significant role in structuring that national effort.

But there is no need to wait for the planners in order to start securing Army training benefits to society now.
From today until Jan. 1, 2000, some 1.5 million young people will be entering and leaving the active Army. Upon their return to the civilian work force, most will bring with them the Montgomery GI Bill, the Veterans Education Assistance Program and/or Army College Fund benefits. Unless there is a serious diminution in the caliber of what they are taught, they will constitute the largest and most successful federal investment in human capital over the period.

If we do not know how to fully utilize the most enriched among us, there is no capital in remediation for those left behind. The Army should ensure the maximum societal benefit from its departing soldiers by actively assisting their transition to higher educational institutions or by assisting their transition to public- and private-sector employers who can take immediate advantage of their skills-from every electronic and information age competency to financial management to teaching-especially in inner-city schools.

Such a policy would help the Army recruit. The Army can do this without additional bureaucracy but not without opening itself-including its training research-to partnership with private industry and other public agencies. The cost to the Army over the entire 11-year period: a bit of autonomy and the value of about four Apache helicopters, delivered but not maintained. The benefit to the Army: a growing societal understanding and willingness to fund excellence in Army training. The benefit to the nation: more than a million men and women equipped and capable of equipping others for the 21st century.

The writer, a Washington attorney, was assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs from 1983 to 1989.

Phi Beta Iota: The Honorable Delbert Spurlock was also General Counsel of the Army and Deputy Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan.

See Also:

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