Military Conversion
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(1), 7-8. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

The end of the Cold War allows the US to cut defense spending substantially. In 1991, national defense employed about 6 million people (about S.1% of the labor force) in the private defense industry, the active duty military services, and Department of Defense civilian ranks. "Assuming large, sustained cuts in defense spending over the next 10 years, as many as 2.5 million defense-related jobs could be gone by 2001." Government programs can ease the adjustment for workers, veterans of the armed forces, and communities, and can offer help to defense companies that want to convert to more commercial production. [US Congress Office of Technology Assessment (1992, February). After the Cold War: Living with Lower Defense Spending. Washington: USGPO]

From World War II to 1988, the US spent $9.6 trillion on the military (1982 dollars)-about $1.5 trillion more than the estimated value of all US tangible assets except for land. Military spending has hobbled civilian public investment. As a nation, we must begin charting the scope of conversion and defining markets for alternative civilian products. But conversion is not as simple as it was after World War II, when the US had a huge pent-up market for consumer goods backed by huge accumulated savings. Moreover; the effort during World War II lasted just four or five years, and many plants needed to do no more than return to what they had previously been making. Today's military plants and bases never had any commercial purpose, and employees have never known what it is like to work in the cost-conscious civilian sector. Conversion must not be mere work relief for a diminished military establishment, but a concerted effort to redirect America's energies toward restoring its industrial health. If the government reverses past neglect by rebuilding the infrastructure, renovating ground transportation, and improving the energy efficiency of the entire economy, big civilian markets will open up. The most serious obstacle to conversion is that recent administrations have opposed it, fearing that this constitutes "industrial policy". But the US has been pursuing an industrial policy of excessive concentration of resources in the military. This must change. "What is at stake in conversion is nothing less than the nation's economic future. . . Failure to take action now would be one of the most portentous blunders in US history." [Ullmann, J. (1991, Aug-Sept). Building a peacetime economy, Technology Review, 94:6, pp. S7-63.]


Military-trained and experienced personnel will be leaving the armed forces in record numbers to find work in the private sector. Additional education will be required at all levels, (i.e. from basic skills training to inclusion in professional programs.) These individuals will be older, more independent and more financially secure than traditional students. Many will find basic employment and attend school to improve their position. They will be former members of the armed services, former civilian employees of the armed services, and former civilian employees of military contractors and closely associated businesses and educational institutions. Career counseling will become an important service to these individuals, and is one avenue for programs in higher education to identify the needs of this population and to establish or re-design programs to serve this special need Such efforts may be exceptionally challenging, because the ex-military person's response to "What skills do you have?" or 'What did you do?" can be incomprehensible to the ordinary faculty advisor or career counselor without a broad military background, making it difficult to appreciate special strengths. Specially designed non-resident programs, off-campus programs, evening and weekend courses, and internship programs will have significant appeal.

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