ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - A U.S. Army command recently underwent a process to identify critical specialty engineering competencies as part of a strategic human-capital development approach for training, recruiting and hiring across the organization's research, development and engineering centers.

Representatives from across the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command identified four manufacturing and technology-centric areas the RDECs hope to strengthen and retain over time: technical project leadership and acquisition; production/manufacturing engineering; maintenance concept engineering; and quality assurance, continuous improvement, and test and evaluation.

Collectively, these competencies consist of skills necessary for turning ideas or products into a reality. Specialty engineering aims to provide the Army with reduced risk and increased efficiency and effectiveness in the areas of cost, schedule, delivery, and system and equipment reliability.

"We started looking at workforce development because RDECOM and a number of our centers are in some of the locations most impacted by the Base Realignment and Closure," said Gary Martin, deputy director to the RDECOM commanding general. "Opportunities will open up for fairly high positions with promotion opportunities for people. Many of these jobs are not technical in nature, and we think specialty engineering will be one of the areas significantly affected."

With anticipated change in government spending, Martin said he thinks there will be a significant shift within the Department of Defense, not on the part of cutting the technology used in the field by Soldiers, but from the front end of a product's lifecycle.

"They may be much more selective in terms of what programs we start, and we will have to take a much stronger look at how we do a better job of enriching the capability that is already out there instead of building a whole new system. Specialty engineering is at the heart of that idea and deals with parts obsolescence, technology refreshment and sustainment. When a technology breaks, you have to have a spare part," said Martin.

According to Martin, the sustainment cost overshadows any of the costs for R&D production and most of those skills are embodied in the specialty engineering side.

While the need for specialty engineering is clear, gaps in the workforce exist throughout the command.

"The main reasons these gaps currently exist is because of an aging and retiring engineering workforce, coupled with insufficient recruiting and hiring of new employees with these competencies and loss of employees due to BRAC actions affecting specific RDECOM organizations," said Ron Michel, director of the RDECOM communications-electronics center's Product Realization Directorate, or CERDEC PRD.

Historically, these specialty engineering functions were integrated in the U.S. manufacturing culture; however, over the past half century, the manufacturing industry sought to reduce its costs by relocating to lower-cost areas that were typically outside the U.S. This move added to the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing industry, Michel said, whose organization manages and provides specialty engineering missions and functions across Army Team C4ISR.

"The U.S. was once the strongest manufacturing country, but when our domestic manufacturing base shrinks, the associated domestic knowledge, skills and abilities essentially become scarce resources in our own country, which could adversely impact our armed forces," said Michel. "It takes a lot of time and resources to recruit, hire and train in order to ensure availability of those shrinking critical competencies."

As part of these efforts, RDECOM applied for and received funding from the DoD's Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund - also known as Section 852 funding- which allows DoD organizations to recruit, hire, develop, train and retain acquisition workforce members. In 2009, the command utilized the funding to organize the Specialty Engineering and Technical Competencies Unified RDECOM Sustainment and Execution IPT, or SETCOURSE IPT, which formed in 2009 and is scheduled to continue through fiscal year 2015.

"Because of the recognized need for an increased focus on efficiency and effectiveness of operations, the Army Materiel Command and RDECOM have put this new, forward-looking program in place to address critical engineering competencies on an RDECOM-wide basis," said Michel, who has led the SETCOURSE IPT since its inception.

Prior to the implementation of the SETCOURSE IPT, RDECOM organizations recognized gaps in training programs for their specialty engineering positions. These gaps led each center to create specific training courses to further develop its workforce because the training needed was not available.

A goal of the SETCOURSE IPT is to leverage each of the RDEC's courses to provide comprehensive training to engineers in the identified critical engineering competencies. Within each of the identified competencies, the IPT outlined the training and skills necessary for employees to be proficient in their areas of expertise and courses to enhance employees' knowledge are being developed and adapted from existing classes across the command.

"If I want to enrich the engineering discipline, I can hire kids right out of a university or send them to get their master's degrees," said Martin. "But specialty engineering requires a lot of unique training that you don't get from a university."

While RDECOM is focusing on hiring and developing critical engineering employees from engineering and technology-accredited schools, most collegiate programs do not train students in specialty engineering disciplines.

In order to supplement training RDECOM employees received during their formal education and on-the-job training, RDECOM's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, or AMRDEC, is leading the efforts to work with the Defense Acquisition University, the U.S. military organization that provides training to military and civilian personnel in the areas of acquisition, technology and logistics, to develop new courses.

"Training is more than the availability of bodies; it's about having people at the right skill level," said Mike Whitt, associate director for Mission Assurance for the Engineering Directorate at AMRDEC.

DAU has partnered in this process and committed to providing level-two certification in systems engineering and the career field of choice for the specialty engineer, said Whitt.

Additionally, the courses will be taught and organized by two Ph.D., government-employee professors who were involved with the legacy specialty engineering program, said Whitt.

The pilot-training programs will be done in two phases with Phase I focusing on logistics engineering, product assurance including quality assurance and reliability, and Phase II encompassing the rest of specialty engineering.

Michel said he hopes that identifying the needs of the specialty engineering workforce will improve the emphasis on recruiting, hiring and training of those with the specific skills, abilities and knowledge to accomplish specialty engineering functions.

The team intends to establish course schedules within the coming year for available specialty engineering training across the command.