By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2005
New Jersey resident John Kosinski knows this much about Maryland's Harford County, home to the Aberdeen Proving Ground: It's got the Chesapeake Bay. He prefers the Jersey Shore. It's got one synagogue. His county has about 20. And it's in a state with an official song that derides its neighbors as "Northern scum."
It's also where his job is going under the Pentagon's military base realignment plan, which becomes official tomorrow. To consolidate military installations and save money, as many as 4,000 high-tech jobs, mostly from Northern Virginia, will move to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, and 5,000 from New Jersey will move to Aberdeen. The big question now is how many job-holders will follow those jobs. Most of them are civilians who do not have to go where the military sends them.
Kosinski, for one, may quit first.
"I'm not trying to denigrate Maryland, not at all," said Kosinski, 47, an electronics engineer at Fort Monmouth. "But everybody has a comfort zone when it comes to where they live. And we're being asked to go really far outside of our comfort zone. There are demographic and cultural factors to consider."
Just as Kosinski pauses to cross the Mason-Dixon line, some Northern Virginians hesitate to cross the Potomac River, setting off a new set of personal and professional struggles now that the political battle over what bases to close is over. Military and local officials in Maryland want to persuade Kosinski and other technically skilled, security-cleared employees to move rather than have to search for hundreds of workers to replace them in a tight labor market.
But other communities don't want them to go. In Virginia, Arlington County is not eager to give up 922 workers at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which is moving its headquarters to Fort Meade from Arlington. County officials want to prevail on the scientists and engineers to stay home and look for new jobs instead of moving.
"These are blue-chip people," said Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development. "We will find them another job in our community. We want to make sure that [the agency's] attrition rate is as high as we can get it."
The Defense Information Systems Agency declined to reveal the results of an internal survey that indicates how many of its workers plan to move to Fort Meade. But in a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the state of New Jersey this summer, less than 20 percent of the Fort Monmouth workers said they definitely would move to Aberdeen.
Maryland officials say they are not worried because the state has a highly skilled workforce that's growing all the time, a steady flow of graduates from world-renowned schools such as Johns Hopkins University, and relationships with some of the world's largest defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the state's largest private employers.
"What we are hoping is that as many people as possible move out to Maryland and become Maryland taxpayers," said J. Michael Hayes, Maryland's director of military affairs. "But we are prepared for any scenario."
Besides, Maryland officials say, time is on their side. The jobs should transfer to Maryland gradually over the next five years or so, giving people ample opportunity to sort out their personal lives and find out about Maryland's housing markets and school systems.
"It takes time for people to come to grips with what they really want to do, and quality of life issues always drive these personal decisions," Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said. "Many people have no idea where we are right now. They think we're out in the boondocks or something."
Anne Arundel -- home of historic Annapolis, the National Security Agency, the sprawling Arundel Mills mall and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport -- hopes to dispel that image in coming months.
For starters, county and military officials plan to reach out to the DISA's workforce. The agency accounts for 4,098 of the 5,291 jobs headed to Fort Meade, according to the base, though the agency says the numbers could be lower. The vast majority of those jobs are currently in Arlington and Fairfax counties, a DISA spokesman said. About 75 percent of the ISA's employees live in Northern Virginia, one to two hours from Anne Arundel County's western half, where Fort Meade is located.
"We know crossing the river is a psychological barrier for a lot of people," said William A. Badger Jr., chief executive of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. "But we need to get the word out that this is a pretty sophisticated market."
That might be a tough sell, especially now, when technically skilled people are comfortable with their job prospects, said Richard Piske, a recruiting executive who specializes in placing security-cleared personnel in government and contracting jobs.
"In our world, six-figure income people won't cross the river," said Piske, vice president and general manager of Kelly FedSecure in Greenbelt, a unit of Kelly Services Inc. "These people are focused on what they want to do, who they want to do it for, and where they want to do it. The critical question as they start a conversation with us is: 'Where is the job?' Lots of conversations end at that point."
That's where it would end for a DISA budget analyst, who would not consider moving to Anne Arundel County and who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agency instructed its employees not to speak to the press, he said.
"I have no interest in driving two hours to get to work," the analyst said as he strolled the aisles of a Target store not far from the DISA office in Falls Church. "I'm not going to Fort Meade. Most of us can just change jobs and go work at a different agency. There are so many agencies close in around here."
Ditto for his friend, a contract specialist, who has no intention of working or living in Anne Arundel County. "I'm already settled," he said. "My wife works close by. It's just too much. I won't do it."
Military officials say there's plenty of time for reluctant workers to reconsider.
"We believe that most workers will commute for three to four years as they balance personal decisions," Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, Fort Meade's commander, said at a recent gathering of Maryland military base officials in Crownsville.
But commuting is not a practical option for employees at New Jersey's Fort Monmouth, who in many ways face more of a culture shock if they show up at Aberdeen than the Fort Meade-bound employees of Northern Virginia.
Harford County, population 235,594, is a once rural but fast-growing area north of Baltimore with plenty of rolling farmland, some horse breeding, and the Chesapeake Bay along its eastern border. Monmouth County, population 636,298, is a built-up suburb enveloped in the New York area and bordered by 27 miles of beach along the Atlantic Ocean.
Under the Pentagon's plan, 5,085 of the 6,004 jobs headed to Aberdeen are coming from Fort Monmouth, which handles hardware and software engineering for land communications between the military forces and for intelligence gathering.
In a report to the federal base-closing commission, the state of New Jersey argued that a majority of its most senior workers would not move and that Maryland would not be able to fill their jobs with people of equal skill in a timely manner.
Those most likely to move will be the least experienced, creating a "brain drain" that will disrupt and undermine the Army's work, said Frank C. Muzzi, co-chairman of the Patriots Alliance, a group that lobbied to keep Fort Monmouth open.
"Maryland officials will tell you: 'We'll fill the jobs,' " Muzzi said. "They have no concept. It's impossible for them to fill the jobs. You can't just replace 15 to 20 years of experience on these very technical programs with someone right out of school. They're trying to dismiss the problems they are going to incur."
One issue is the dearth of workers in the job market who have security clearances. Clearances can take 12 to 18 months to obtain.
Derek B. Stewart, director for military and civilian personnel issues at the Government Accountability Office, said the federal office in charge of granting clearance had a backlog of 185,000 cases as of February.
Should a large number of workers decide not to move to Aberdeen or Fort Meade, the Army has a problem, Stewart said. The Office of Personnel Management, which handles security clearances, could pay big bucks to have its contractors expedite clearances.
"Sure, the Defense Department may fill the positions," Stewart said. "But at what cost? This can get expensive in a hurry."
And if it does, it would undermine the cost-saving goals of the military base consolidation process, said Loren B. Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington.
"The more people you have to clear, and hire, and train anew, the more it will cost the government and hence the lower the savings," Thompson said.
The federal base-closing commission is betting that a large number of employees will move.
"A significant number of researchers and scientists will move in order to stay with the projects they're working on," said Anthony J. Principi, chairman of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. "Good scientists follow the good science and research."
Still, the state of New Jersey managed to raise enough red flags about Fort Monmouth that the commission is requiring the secretary of defense to verify that the move to Aberdeen will not disrupt research that aids the war on terrorism.
And that's why all eyes are on people like Kosinski. If he moves, he leaves behind everything from his doctor to his network of babysitters. He leaves behind the beach, just two miles from his home, and the boardwalk. And he leaves behind a far-reaching family support structure.
"With military, you're in the Army. That's your home. That's your family and that's your culture," said Kosinski, a New Jersey native. "With civilians, it's a different set of conditions."
Kosinski tells his colleagues that moving has its advantages. High-level jobs will open up. Aberdeen won't be rural for much longer, creating opportunities for those who want to speculate on land.
As for himself, Kosinski remains torn. He knows he's marketable. A few private firms have already approached him, just as they had 24 years ago before he accepted a job at Fort Monmouth.
That doesn't make it easier.
"I chose public service, deliberately trading off salary for a certain sense of stability," Kosinski said. "When they come in and say 'move or else,' well, that kind of takes the edge off the sense of stability."