That noise you hear at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to start the new year is the sound of the other shoe dropping – or rather, nearly a thousand pairs of shoes.
The South Sound region has been bracing for news of significant civilian job cuts at JBLM for months, even before the Army announced in July that the local base would have to thin another 1,250 active-duty troops from its ranks. All told, the post Iraq War downsizing has reduced uniformed soldiers at JBLM by about 7,000 – a decline of more than 20 percent from the 34,000 soldiers it had in 2012.
It was inevitable that the next rounds of cuts would hit civilian workers and private contractors who support the critical Army and Air Force mission. The only questions were the number, and the timing.
Now it appears an estimated 900 of the base’s more than 16,000 civilian jobs will be targeted, according to information JBLM released to News Tribune reporter Adam Ashton for his story that was published Sunday.
While the number packs a punch, the timing is not catastrophic. The cuts will be spread across two years in small enough batches that a congressional notification likely won’t be warranted. Many jobs will be pared through attrition or retirements rather than pink slips. And those who want to keep working will enter a robust Puget Sound economy.
JBLM already has a nationally recognized network of job transition programs in place, such as Camo 2 Commerce and Northwest Edge, which prepare service members for work in the Puget Sound. The base has established partnerships with companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks. Apprenticeships and advanced degrees are also strong options in the region.
It shouldn’t take much tweaking to adapt those programs to the needs of non-uniformed military employees.
Civilian workers can’t say they weren’t warned about the coming retrenchment.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified in congressional hearings last spring that civilian personnel would be part of the Pentagon’s larger blueprint for budget cuts, after a decade when those jobs had mushroomed by 100,000.
He said the problem with that job boom “is that nobody looked at the existing civilian force and said, ‘Okay, we’re adding 100,000 people, but are there some jobs that can be eliminated at the same time?’”
Carter, however, cautioned elected leaders against casting civilian workers in broad stereotypes.
“In Washington, we tend to think of civilians as people who sit at a desk at the Pentagon. But 85 percent of our civilians are outside the Washington metropolitan area; they’re repairing ships and airplanes and so forth.”
At JBLM, they are police officers and plumbers, pharmacists and purchasing agents, combat trainers and social workers.
Many of them are older and more placebound than active-duty soldiers, having decided years ago to make the Tacoma area their permanent home.
A great many of them are veterans who once wore the uniform of their country.
They should be given the same chance for a fresh start as those who still wear it today.