To meet the demands of a very robust military construction (MILCON) mission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) employee base has grown to some 37,000 talented Civilians and Soldiers. After more than a decade, the MILCON projects are completed, and USACE is looking for creative ways to retain its employees.
One solution that is working well for Huntsville Center is the use of virtual project managers, and because of its success, the Installation Support and Program Management (ISPM) Directorate plans to bring additional virtual project managers to the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville within the next year to work in the Facilities and Medical divisions.
According to Chip Marin, ISPM director, USACE had a multi-billion dollar MILCON program between 2000 and 2013 due to Department of Defense force realignments. Occurring at the same time as the Corp’s MILCON efforts, a 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) was underway.
“Because of BRAC there was a re-stationing of forces because we closed smaller camps and stations and consolidated forces at larger installations,” Marin said. “In order to relocate those forces, we had to build new facilities and infrastructure at the bases to which they were moving.”
Due to the vast amount of work, USACE had to increase its workforce. However, in 2013 most of USACE’s MILCON projects were completed. This left many employees without work, and some districts had a surplus of personnel they no longer needed, Marin said.
USACE had two choices, complete a reduction in force or find its surplus employees work.
A unique opportunity for work presented itself through the Huntsville Center, which works mostly on operations and maintenance, and sustainment restoration and modernization.
“We fix and sustain stuff that is already built, and our program has been going up while new construction is going down,” Marin said. “Rather than us hiring new people just for us, we are trying to use the excess people who are out in the geographic districts so they don’t have to let them go.”
This was a win-win situation, said Marin. Huntsville Center receives an employee who already understands USACE processes, as well as the roles, responsibilities and requirements of project management.
“The virtual project managers are also familiar with the area of responsibility in which they are assigned by their geographic district,” he said.
Lynn Daniels, a virtual senior project manager for Huntsville Center’s Facility Reduction Program, works from the Seattle District’s Missoula Business Office in Montana. She manages demolition projects, primarily on the west coast, for the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, NASA, Defense Logistics Agency and two USACE districts.
It is a benefit that she lives closer to the west coast where the majority of her projects are located, Daniels said.
“I spend less time traveling to reach most of my jobs, and I am more familiar with the culture,” she said.
Her proximity to projects is a benefit to Huntsville Center, but being a virtual project manager is like an extreme form of teleworking, and if you want to be successful you have to be self-motivated, Daniels said.
“I don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call my teammates, my customers and my contractors,” she said. “I am in constant motion from initiating projects, managing those in the field and then closing out old projects.”
A busy schedule and geographical separation sometimes requires a work schedule adjustment, which is nothing new for Lisa Cass, another Huntsville Center virtual project manager.
Cass, who works from the Seattle District, is a maintenance and service project manager for the Huntsville Center’s Access Control Point program and likes to ensure communication is streamlined with all project stakeholders regardless of their time zones.
“Having all the paperwork up to date, schedules reviewed and budgets under control are also essential to ensure seamless virtual project management with team members,” she said.
Although working as a virtual project manager has been a success, there have been some downsides to working virtually like not being able to have hallway or "water cooler" discussions, Daniels said.
“I can't pop over to someone's desk to see if they are at work, or to see if something I have asked for is unclear,” Daniels said.
However, while Daniels and Cass miss some of the benefits of collocation, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, said Marin.
“Rather than a district letting an employee go, we assign them as a virtual project manager … so, we don’t have to do a hiring action, and we don’t have to pay for a permanent change of station,” he said.