WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (March 2, 2017) -- In a nondescript-corner room in the arsenal's headquarters there is a remarkable transformation being planned for the workforce, albeit centuries late.

Since the arsenal opened its gates in 1813, its workforce has always had an informal and important culture of nurturing. In essence, those who have less experience and knowledge being guided by those more experienced in the ways of manufacturing, Army procedures, and in personal development.

Why is this nurturing important? Because success here helps ensure that U.S. and allied forces are more successful on the battlefield. After all, for more than 200 years the arsenal's weapon systems and military hardware have helped hundreds of thousands of the nation's servicemen and women to safely come home from battle.

But today, there are threats to this informality as tenured civilians are retiring in significant numbers, taking with them tens of thousands of hours of experience, knowledge, and insights of Army manufacturing and in life, said John Bianchi, the deputy director of Industrial Operations and Production.

"We almost have the perfect storm developing with our workforce," Bianchi said. "Due to inconsistent defense budgets in recent years, high turnover of well-experienced personnel, and workforce demographics transitioning from a Baby Boomer heavy workforce to one being backfilled by Millennials, we must change our workforce development now to prevent a personnel crisis in future years."

Tony Urban, the deputy director of Installation Management, and Bianchi are co-leaders of a Lean event that was recently initiated to address these challenges.

Now, getting back to that nondescript-corner room. Arsenal leadership in January launched a workforce development team initially made up of Jennifer Walkley and Brant Wert.

Walkley brings experience from her previous position in Installation Management, while Wert offers the experience from his previous position in Operations as a journeyman machinist. They report to the arsenal's chief of staff to develop and implement several workforce development programs that should benefit all arsenal employees.

Their first task is to make sense of a recent arsenal survey where several aspects of workforce development were rated as deficient among the respondents. One of the areas identified as being a shortfall was that the arsenal did not have a formal mentorship program.

Something interesting was identified in the results in a second, more recent survey that was tailored just for the topic of mentorship, Walkley said. More than 45 percent of the survey respondents had stated that they had a mentor here even though there has not been a formal mentorship program at the arsenal in any one's memory.

"Given such a high rate of mentoring already occurring here, it only makes sense that we try to tap into that process to make it better," Walkley said. "I believe that people want to engage each other, especially after their recently going through sequestration, inconsistent workload schedules, and now a hiring freeze."

Wert said that although they are only in the program development stage, there is one key aspect of the informal mentorship that will definitely be a part of the formal program.

"We envision a spirit of volunteerism where personnel readily offer their experiences and insight to others," Wert said. "Additionally, mentorship will transcend the path of skill development to a broader aspect called 'professional development.'"

Ideally, the arsenal mentorship program will enlist volunteers who will then be armed with the tools, such as mentor guidelines and standard procedures, to make their mentorship efforts more productive, Wert said. And, those who want to be mentored will have a place to find a mentor if they so desire.

One thing to keep in mind is that mentorship is not leadership. Leaders are already tasked, as well as expected to help develop those under their supervision. To not give the impression of favoritism, mentors typically do not come from the individual's direct chain of command. Mentors could be peers, people who are more experienced in manufacturing or in life; or even subordinates who have unique experiences that they might want to share.

Bianchi said he believes the mentorship program will launch later this year.

The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the United States having begun operations during the War of 1812.