The Sand Pebbles is a movie centered on an American warship operating in Chinese waters. A newly arriving machinist’s mate named Jake Holman reports for duty and is startled to find that the crew has hired local workers to do all their essential manual tasks – working on the boilers, maintaining the equipment, etc. The sailors aren’t working on their own ship.
When Jake Holman starts to do his own work, the crew and the locals are all offended. “It’s his bowl of rice“, one reclining sailor says while pointing to the contractor who does his job. Holman insists on the crew working on their own equipment. Eventually the hired men have cause to leave the ship, showing the crew’s folly in losing their capability to do their own essential work.
Just like ships have radiomen, gunners and helmsmen, facilities have staff jobs – data systems, training, procedures, quality assurance. Those jobs were once held by controllers. Maybe they got old and lost their timing, maybe they wanted to avoid mandatory age-56 retirement, maybe they had a few ‘events’. Maybe they lost their Class II physical because of diabetes or a heart attack. These support positions were a good way for the facility to continue to benefit from an experienced controller, and they were a good way to take care of our people.
Most staff jobs aren’t held by controllers any more (some are, but it’s a diminishing number). A lot of staff jobs are held by contractors. The contractors generally are retired controllers who come back for $25/hour (training) to $50/hour (procedures with travel). A lot of tower sims and radar dysims are run by contractors.
At one time, using a contractor in a facility was a taboo. They didn’t work for the FAA, they worked for another company. The contractors learned the trick was to hire a recent retiree that would be accepted into the culture, and they announced that by using contractors the facility could use every controller to work traffic.
One negative impact was losing a place to work a controller who had a heart attack. Back in the day, the controller with a heart attack would be a training specialist. Now that we’re lean-and-mean, a controller with a heart attack who couldn’t get their medical restored is probably fired for failing to maintain a medical clearance, or they’re discharged on disability pay. When the average age in the workforce was 25 it wasn’t that big a deal. With an average age of 47, it seems more important.
We also lost the impact of an actual controller contributing to lesson plans, training, and procedures. A lot of projects benefited from controllers in staff positions providing real-world feedback to the change process.
Increasingly we can’t do anything without contractor support. We’ve become just like the ship in the movie. If you want a new procedure you can’t do it unless you’re using contractors. Go to a meeting in Headquarters or a regional office, and the contractors may outnumber the actual Feds. The problem is that the contractor’s employer has a different set of goals than the organization. Someday, that contractor/vendor is going to want a different thing than we do – and I’m not sure we’ll be able to have our way.
It’s an issue of knowledge management. When we gave up ownership of (and investment in) our own core processes, we lost the ability to innovate and change without external help. We need attendants to do for us what we once did for ourselves.
It’s also union busting, filling jobs that a union controller would occupy with a retiree contractor working for a third party.
Who’s providing the contractors? LockMart, Raytheon, and a host of Beltway Bandits – the same companies that would like to privatize more of the ATC system. It’s not just that we’ve lost our sense of doing our own work; it’s also that we’ve trained our competitors to do our jobs while we’re paying them. Embedding LockMart employees in our training, change, and technical processes is truly putting the fox in the hen house.
We’re giving away training, procedures, and QA every bit as much as we gave away FSS. They’re eating our bowl of rice.