The commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke to about 50 employees and military members Oct. 18 during the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference, or HENAAC, in Pasadena.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told the audience the number one focus for the Corps should be talent management.

With the Corps' workload increasing from $26 billion last year to $48 billion this year, it's more important than ever to recruit the best and the brightest engineers, the general said.

"We are doing a lot more work for the Navy, Air Force and the Department of Defense," he said. "The reason we are being asked by Congress and (President Donald Trump) to do so much more work is because we do have world-class engineers.

"What we've got to do is continue to aspire to bring in the best and the brightest. Not only do we need to have people with credentials who understand what the Corps is about, but we've also got to have diversity. We need no-flow engineers."

Some of the ways the Corps can achieve its goal is through Direct-Hire Authority and recruiting talented individuals at job fairs and conferences, like HENAAC.

According to the Office of Personnel Management website, a Direct-Hire Authority is an appointing authority OPM can give to federal agencies for filling vacancies, when a critical hiring need or severe shortage of candidates exists.

The average hiring time in the Department of the Army is 144 days, from the time supervisors want to hire someone until the potential employee receives a job offer, Semonite said. In the Corps of Engineers, the average is 88 days, but even that is too long, he said.

It's not a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) problem, he said. It's a policy problem.

"We need to have a lot more people (working for the Corps) to go from $26 billion to $48 billion," Semonite said. "We are growing. Every single District is getting bigger."

He reiterated to employees the way the Corps stays relevant is by changing the culture and revolutionizing the organization.

"Bottom line is the business model is too bureaucratic, too lethargic, too slow, too micro-managing and too centralized at the Corps' Headquarters," he said. "The only way we are going to get $48 billion in the ground and still have our reputation is to change the way we are doing things."

He challenged his employees and senior leaders to allow for more risk-informed decision making, which means streamlining processes, providing the "good enough" solution and not always the perfect solution, being more innovative and being less micro-managing.

"Take some risks, but never take risks on ethics," he said.

"I want us to be legal, but always have a very high reputation with being truthful, transparent and doing things for the right reason," he said. "What I don't necessarily need to have is a '3x3x3' that takes seven years to build because you're worried that you might be off by a little bit."

A "3x3x3" is a rule that a Corps of Engineers' planning study can be no more than $3 million, three years and with three concurrent levels of review.

Semonite also emphasized his three priorities: Strengthening the foundation, delivering the program and achieving the vision.

"World-class organizations have to have a strong foundation," he said. "A strong foundation empowers leaders to think strategically … It goes back to values and doing the right thing for the right reasons. If you have a strong foundation, you're ready to build a building."

Delivering the program is Semonite's second priority.

The Corps credibility is based on the ability to achieve desired results on time and on budget, he said.

There are three ways to construct a building --fast, cheap or high quality, he explained. It's almost impossible to do all three.

"Here's one thing I'm not going to take risks with, and that's quality," Semonite said. "Be realistic. How do you do quality, and how do you do on time and at cost, so that it is somewhere close to where it needs to be."

He told employees to focus on the future and where the state will be 20 years from now.

"Where is California going and what do you need to stay ahead of that now?" he asked. "A world-class organization anticipates where they need to go and tries to get ahead of it."


Semonite's decision to lobby for Direct-Hire Authority has been a tremendous benefit to the LA District, according to George Green, Workforce Management administrator.

To date, Green said, the LA District has hired 16 recent college graduates and student trainees, as well as one acquisition professional using the Direct-Hire Authority.

The push for Direct-Hire Authority also gave the Corps an edge in the hiring process during the HENAAC Career Fair Oct. 20, where the LA District was able to sign 22 letters of intent to hire.

"Although we were able to connect with many students and future STEM experts (in the past)," he said, "this year, we were able to truly conduct interviews on-the-spot and provide letters of intent to students and recent graduates who clearly displayed the potential to be valuable members of the Corps family."

Additionally, conferences like HENAAC provide the Corps and the LA District with national exposure to the next generation of Hispanic scientists, biologists, mathematicians, engineers and other STEM experts, Green said.

"It is an opportunity for us to showcase our complex projects, high-visibility stakeholders and expose students to the important work we do for the nation and our international partners," he added.


Great Minds in STEM is the HENAAC sponsor. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of 36 sponsors at the event. According to the Great Minds in STEM website, the HENAAC Conference offers college students:

A one-stop source for career and professional development to gain entry into the technical workforce;

A place to network and interact with high-level STEM professionals;

The chance to build self-confidence through technical and professional development competitions and mentorship;

An opportunity to explore internship, full-time employment and graduate schools; and,

The venue to access information on cutting-edge technologies.