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Dan Carreno (current Exec. Dir. NAWCWD), RDML Keith Hash and Joan Johnson (former Exec. Dir NAWCWD). /Laura Austin Photo

Naval Air Warfare Center hiring and retention challenges

By SCOTT O’NEIL IWV Economic Dev. Corp.– The first article in this series provided an overview of national and state trends that have fueled challenges in recruitment and retention.  The second addressed the peculiarities in healthcare.  Today’s article discusses the hurdles facing local government employment, particularly the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) at China Lake.  While NAWCWD is generally meeting their hiring targets there are some unintended consequences.  Their biggest challenge is in retention. Both will be addressed in this article.  

Scott O’Neil

The National Science Foundation reports the number of science and engineering (S&E) degrees conferred by US colleges continue to increase annually at all levels, e.g., between 2010 and 2019 a 77.5% increase was observed.  [Here S&E includes: engineering, computer science, physical sciences, mathematics and statistics.]  Nationwide, the percentage of graduating S&E who prefer government employment, particularly in the Department of Defense and who can get a security clearance, is roughly 3%.  This small percentage is further strained by the Navy’s need to hire in all demographic groups (age, gender, ethnic background, etc.) and by NAWCWD being located in a remote part of a liberal state with high tax rates.  NAWCWD has to compete with other DoD employers in this environment for its share of the S&E new professional talent pool, a difficult endeavor at best.  

Generally, NAWCWD’s annual hiring is targeted to replace attrition.  New graduates continue to represent a strong majority of these hirings.  In 2022 NAWCWD hired about 130 new S&Es at the China Lake site.  Their 2023 goals are about 200.  Again, most of these are S&Es, but they are also hiring administrators, technicians, specialists, and business and clerical workers.   Most of the new hires, particularly the S&Es, are also new to our community.  Even with the constricted candidate pool for new professionals, NAWCWD has generally met its hiring targets.  Their minority representation has improved across the board and women are better represented in their technical community.  

Many of NAWCWD’s mid-career S&E hires are from local defense contractors.  These contractors in turn either hire retired Navy S&Es, relocate employees, or they must find, attract, hire and import new talent.  Similarly, many of NAWCWD’s non-S&Es hires are locals that are drawn from our other employers.  In both cases, these people see government employment as an attractive option.  Unfortunately, this dynamic significantly affects the attrition experienced by these other employers who are continuously scrambling to recruit and hire replacements.   This is particularly a challenge for non-S&Es because hiring here is typically at the entry level where people are inexperienced, and just beginning their careers.  In this case, local businesses end up with the bulk of the recruiting, hiring and training burdens.  

On the attrition side, a number of factors have caused NAWCWD’s attrition to rise.  This has been anticipated for a while, but the pandemic really exacerbated the situation.  Fifteen years ago the average age of a NAWCWD employee was in the high 40s and roughly 60% were retirement eligible.  The average age today is in the low forties.  A few years ago, when NAWCWD went under the Los Angeles cost-of-living pay scale, many people delayed their retirement to build their annuity.  These folks are now beginning to retire.  COVID and the mandate for vaccines are other reasons some have chosen to leave.  Attrition has increased across the nation; NAWCWD has experienced the same trend.  In the last quarter, this appears to be correcting; but it still means NAWCWD will need to hire about 350-400 people at China Lake site each year for the foreseeable future just to replace attrition. 

Beyond these three, there are some other key factors identified in exit interviews with people choosing to leave.  These include high demand for S&Es in the national labor market.  Some are getting 25-30% salary increases for changing jobs.  NAWCWD has done a cost-of-living analysis that shows staying put is the best economic choice when the cost of housing, retirement, commute costs, health insurance, etc. are all considered.  So far this rationale has not stemmed the outflow.  Other factors that were cited include “going back home to be closer to family,” remote location, lack of daycare, healthcare (doctors unwilling to take new patients), and available housing.  

As we piece together the local hiring and retention picture it appears there are some emerging common factors that are contributing to a person’s decision to leave Ridgecrest for seemingly greener pastures.  While on the surface this may not be surprising, what may be is a majority of these factors lie outside an employer’s sphere of influence.  It will be interesting to see if this continues to hold when we look at other employers’ experiences in future articles.  The final article will address these common factors and explore some ways we can help mitigate them as a community.