REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Materiel Command's top civilian delivered strong words in defense of the civilian workforce during the Association of the United States Army's Annual Meeting and Expo, Oct. 23. When John Nerger, AMC's executive deputy to the commanding general, spoke from a panel at the Civilian Professional Development Seminar, his message was direct. "If some of [my comments] come across as provocative, they are intended to be," he said.Nerger acknowledged the difficulty of serving as a Department of the Army civilian, or DAC, during today's environment. As the senior civilian leader in an organization that is 96 percent civilian, Nerger is uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of DACs. About 25 percent of all Army civilians work for AMC; the command employs more than 65,000 DACs."The best Army in the world needs the best possible support, and that's what we civilians do," he said. "That is what continues to inspire, motivate and reward me."But Nerger said he was not immune to the effects of the furloughs -- both over the summer and during the recent government shutdown -- that caused most civilians to be thought of as "non-essential.""I'm troubled by how these actions play into the popular mindset that public service isn't valued and that absent government employees are not missed," he explained. "You can call a civilian any dirty word, but classifying them as non-essential crosses the line. You can call a civilian anything, but don't call them non-essential."Most civilians endured six days of unpaid leave this summer following budget cuts forced from sequestration. Civilians were furloughed a second time when the government shut down due to a lapse in an appropriation from Congress."I'm concerned what DACs think when they don't see or hear their leaders speak out loudly or strongly on their behalf -- in DoD, the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch -- or when they do, actions aren't matching the words. If people are our credentials, furloughs do not express it."Nerger noted damage from the furloughs went far beyond unpaid days off for the workforce; on top of pay, DACs lost motivation and ultimately trust."I'm troubled by the loss of trust in those who've been loyal to this institution who thought their service noble, meaningful and a calling," Nerger said.Civilian workforce reductions also loom on the horizon as the Army draws down from more than 12 years of war and downsizes its end strength. "The budget is getting smaller; the active Army is getting smaller, and so will the supporting civilian force. It's an unfortunate reality," he said.Nerger is focused on having the right tools in place to ensure those who have served leave on positive terms. To that end, he recommends improved exit options, such as retirement year credits or allowing up to a year of part-time service with no retirement offset. "We need to transition our aging workforce sooner in a way that allows them to leave with dignity and advantages befitting a career of service," Nerger insisted. "And we need ways like this to protect our interns and journeymen."Preserving a culture of innovation and workforce development were other concerns expressed during the panel."Uncertain times, furloughs and down-sizing all lead to risk-averse behavior, a preoccupation with a near-term focus, reduced interest in professional development, and a weaker environment for innovation," said Nerger.While the current budget environment is likely to persist, Nerger is looking to repair the damage done by rewarding or incentivizing innovation and investing in the workforce. "Personal and professional growth come when we stretch our comfort zones," he explained.The current environment has led many DACs to "hunker down" and not seek new assignments or training opportunities; instead, he wants civilians challenged and encouraged to seek new opportunities and grow into an Army career. Nerger concluded with strong statements and a clear message."When we furlough career civilian professionals, we diminish their professionalism. When we stop incentivizing excellent performance, we start incentivizing mediocrity. When we freeze compensation and incentive pay, we freeze the desire to do whatever it takes instead of the minimum required. When we stop honoring public service for the noble profession it truly is, we deter honorable citizens from considering such service and degrade the morale of those who should be so very proud of that service," he said."It's time for us to: - Speak much more loudly on behalf of DACs and public servants and let everyone know the country is well-served and taxpayers are getting more than their money's worth;- Work much harder to help all understand just how much the best Army in the world needs the best civilians to support it;- Recognize the risks these times pose to workplace innovation and workforce professional development and find ways to counter them;- And vow never to make the mistake of furloughing our civilian professionals ever again."