Thursday, May 7, 2009

FLPPing out at the Defense Department

Here is one of the many well-thought, sensible, and innovative policy changes to come out of the Defense Department in the past couple years: Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPP) for ALL qualified servicemembers, regardless of rank, rate, or service branch.

It's based on a matrix that takes into account your score on the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and the criticality of the language you speak. It maxes out at $1,000/month for active duty and $500 for Guard and Reserve.

Here are the "Immediate Investment" languages from the list: Arabic, Chinese, Persian Dari/Persian Farsi, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Pashtu, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, and Punjabi.

The next category is "Strategic Stronghold" languages, which pay slightly less per month for an equivalent test score, as compared to those in the above paragraph.

Now, you might be wondering, why on earth is it a good idea for DoD to be paying the cook on a ship in The Seychelles to be able to speak Chinese? Or for an Air Force supply clerk in Qatar to be able to speak Urdu? Here's why: Paying that guy (or girl) $12,000 a year to maintain proficiency in the language is: a) a much stronger incentive than saying "We should do this," but b) much more importantly, it's a way for the bean-counters at the Pentagon to recognize where the speakers are when they're needed. Hiring contractors when you need them is at least 20 times more expensive, and it comes with a whole new set of challenges when security clearances become involved.

Let's say a crisis erupts in the Balkans; suddenly, in our hypothetical, we need to identify ALL the fluent Serb-Croat speakers within DoD. Past examples have repeatedly shown that people aren't going to do this on their own -- after all, where's their incentive? In the worst cases I've heard of, people have hidden or even outright lied so as not to be yanked overseas so their critical skill could be used.

The new FLPP system totally changes that. If you're willing be paid for your skill, you're not going to be able to hide when you're needed. And if you're needed, you can't just opt out -- when ANY servicemember, regardless of rank, MOS, or branch, raises their right hand, states the oath, and then signs on the dotted line, he or she willingly cedes most of the basic rights that most other Americans enjoy every day. If a civilian employer wanted to relocate an employee, the employee would have the right to simply not go; in the DoD, that act would be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and could mean a long bus ride to Fort Leavenworth.

That's why FLPP makes tons of sense for all the parties involved. If you were lucky enough to have a parent who was a native speaker of one of the critical languages, or if you just like to travel and/or study a lot, you might have a back-pocket skill that could earn you a very nice chunk of extra change.

But when it comes time to pay the piper for it, the DoD will have in you an asset that's already trained, probably has a clearance, and can be had for pennies on the dollar compared to a contract linguist.

As a way forward, I'll spend a lot of next year working my l'il tail off on the Dari and Pashto quals. I won't get *paid* for it in the sense of an hourly wage-earner, but I'm thinking of it as a long-term investment that, when laid out over the next 15+ years of service, sure beats a lot of potential alternatives.

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