Decline in contracting means new roles for service members

Dec 6, 2013

If a second federal sequester happens in January, the US military is anticipating another $52 billion in defense spending cuts. In Iowa, the National Guard is finding ways to save money by reducing the amount of work that is performed by contractors. We get more from Iowa Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren, in the third and final installment of our series on military contracts.         

One reason the military uses contractors is that the workforce is flexible. Specialists can be brought in for short term or irregular projects. When the country is at war, many roles typically performed by service members are contracted out to free soldiers for combat.

For civilians, the thought of military food preparation may bring to mind a classic mess hall setup, like a scene from the HBO World War Two series, Band of Brothers (full scene includes an expletive). 

But today—many military food services are contracted out. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Thompson, of the Iowa National Guard, arranged for those contracts when he was stationed in Afghanistan. He says meals were often catered, instead of prepared by service members on site.

"One of the big complaints we got from our soldiers when we did the catered meals, it would be cold because it was being brought in and stuff, and it was always a challenge for us contractually to stay on top of the vendors," Thompson said. 

For training weekends at the Iowa National Guard Headquarters, Thompson estimates 80% of meals are still catered—but he says more and more units who have a trained cook are ordering raw ingredients to prepare meals on site. He says that saves money, and it’s a trend he expects will continue. 

"We will pay less for raw ingredients than catered meals. Those soldiers are here anyways, they’re getting paid. So ultimately that’s a cost savings for us," Thompson said. 

In 2011, the Project on Government Oversight—a nonprofit think tank—published a cost analysis of the military’s use of service contracts. It found that on average, contractors were paid almost twice as much as federal employees for the same work.

Co-Author Scott Amey attributes that to a lack of oversight, but also the costs of paying contractors who work in government facilities.

"You have to add in the overhead to bring these contractors in, if they are working in government facility, that comes at a cost," Amey said. "There’s background checks, computers, lights, handhelds, and desks that need to be procured."

In September, the Government Accountability Office identified the National Guard as a source of personnel to take on some of the work now being done by contractors.

The Iowa Guard’s US Property and Fiscal Officer Colonel Allen Meyer says it would be a return to an older model that goes far beyond food service—National guard and reservists could take on maintenance work, transportation and administrative duties.

"Prior to 9/11, a lot of transportation units would be involved in an exercise annually, to move cargo around the country as part of their training," Meyer said. "Doing line hall, but at the same time saving federal dollars."

Meyer says he’s told service members that things are about to change.

"In a lot of cases I think it’s for the better. Gets us into a mode where they are doing the job they were originally signed on to do." 

And in that way, they're  transitioning to life after two long wars.