KABUL, Afghanistan – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers marked two significant milestones during March 2012 in the difficult task of transferring ownership of newly constructed buildings to the Afghan government.
On March 18, Kabul's Vocational Technical Training School graduated its second class of Afghan trainees in construction and property management. Corps of Engineers officials worked closely with the school's faculty members to design and run the six-month course, which produced 58 new graduates.
On March 1, Corps of Engineers officials handed over nearly all operations and maintenance duties to Afghan forces at Darulaman Garrison, an Afghan army training base on the south side of Kabul. The turnover marked the largest transition of its type to date.
"Actually, I would say it's the culmination of several really good months," said Cheryle Hess, who serves as chief of the Operations and Maintenance Division for the Corps of Engineers in northern Afghanistan.
The primary difficulty in transferring operations and maintenance duties of newly constructed buildings to Afghans is that after three decades of war and economic stagnation, the country simply does not have enough qualified property management professionals to do the job.
Meanwhile, there's an acute – and growing – need for skilled operations and maintenance workers.
The Corps of Engineers is producing hundreds of police stations, military bases and other infrastructure projects for Afghan forces across the country. The inventory includes barracks, dining facilities, office buildings, gyms, storage facilities and more. Someone has to maintain those buildings after the Americans hand over the keys.
As a result, the Corps of Engineers has taken on the responsibility of teaching operations and maintenance skills to hundreds of workers. The agency‟s military personnel and civilian employees teach those skills themselves, and they've partnered with Afghan colleges and vocational schools and outside contractors to train even more workers.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Brannon worked closely with the Vocational Technical Training School's administrators to write the curriculum and to run it properly. The program was designed specifically so that graduates would be qualified to maintain the inventory of buildings that the Corps of Engineers is building.
Brannon, who serves as the Corps of Engineers' Operations and Maintenance deputy chief of training and transition, based the curriculum on the Air Force‟s operations and maintenance program, which he previously taught in the United States. The program features six trades: plumber, electrician, carpenter, painter, mason, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians.
"There are several hundred tasks per trade, and they're adapted for Afghanistan," said Brannon, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, who‟s on a yearlong assignment in Afghanistan, and whose home station is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
The list of tasks range from simple jobs to complex jobs. For example, the coursework for plumbers ranges from cleaning out a drain to installing a toilet. "It gets specific, because you want them to truly show proficiency at each task," Brannon said.
Special considerations had to be made for the trainees, who were recruited by the Afghan ministries of defense and the interior. An essential first step was providing basic instruction in literacy and numerology. Just 28.1 percent of Afghan adults can read and write, according to figures compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
"We got the students in and started to teach them. I had carpenters who had never seen numbers – period. They had never used a tape measure, never seen words. I mean, they‟re from the hills of Afghanistan," Brannon said.
Before the instruction, many trainees had compensated for their lack of formal education by using pieces of string to gage comparative measurements. They used that method to determine the length of lumber, bricks and other building materials.
"They made their own bricks. They piled their bricks the way their father and grandfather piled bricks before them. Now we're trying to teach them the ability to maintain the structures that we've built, which are a little bit more complicated than that," Brannon said.
The U.S.-funded structures are outfitted with features such as concrete floors, door knobs, indoor plumbing and electric power, which are completely new and unfamiliar amenities for many Afghans. Before teaching trainees how to fix leaky water faucets, instructors had to teach them how faucets function.
Likewise, many of the recruits had no prior experience with electric power tools, Brannon said. "Obviously, there's a lot of safety training that goes with that. Having a saw that spins by itself and that can cut your fingers off? That was an issue," he said.
The instruction went mostly well. A few of the trainees accidentally severed the cords of their own tools, but not their fingers.
Overall, 58 members of the 60-member second class graduated, which marked a significant increase in the success rate compared to the first class, Brannon said. The Afghan government's recruiting techniques for the first class of 60 was somewhat suspect.
"They waited until the last minute," said Brannon, who speaks Dari, which is Afghanistan's primary language.
"They pulled the troops literally off the street. We had two guys who said they were standing at a bus station and people in uniform came up and said, 'Hey, would you like a job?' They put them on a bus and brought them to Kabul. They were recruited at a bus station," Brannon said.
Others had similarly lacking qualifications.
In contrast, the second class of recruits was more targeted. That group was comprised largely of men who already had low-level civilian jobs at Afghan military bases. Generally, they worked as janitors or errand runners. Others were tradesmen from rural areas.
Those graduates have since taken full-time positions at facilities throughout northern Afghanistan.
Despite the recent success, there is plenty of work ahead, Brannon said. Current projections call for 3,500 operations and maintenance managers to maintain just the facilities that the Corps of Engineers is building.
The vast majority of the newly trained personnel to date have been Afghan civilians, though there is discussion within the Afghan government about retraining some Afghan soldiers to take on those duties, Brannon said. That decision rests entirely with Afghan government officials.
Brannon also played a key role in developing the Corps of Engineers' on-the-job training program for Afghan employees. The program is similar to the vocational school's program and features four levels of achievement for each trade: laborer, apprentice, journeyman and craftsman. The full program takes about four to five years to complete.
To date, 230 Afghans have been certified as craftsmen, while 501 others are enrolled in the program at 15 facilities across the northern portion of the country, he said. Furthermore, Brannon has shared the program with other U.S. and coalition agencies in Afghanistan to ensure a uniform approach.
"The ultimate goal is transition," Brannon said. "We want the Afghans to be able to maintain and sustain all the things that we've built."
The focus on operations and maintenance also could help steady the Afghan workforce as U.S. and coalition forces prepare to withdraw from the Afghanistan during the next few years.
The United States and other NATO countries have created thousands of construction jobs for Afghans during a nearly 10-year construction blitz, but that building boom is all but certain to end, or at least shrink dramatically, when U.S. and coalition forces withdraw. A portion of those construction workers, however, could transfer to operations and maintenance jobs, Brannon said.
In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers has been successful in turning over buildings to Afghan forces.
Previously, nearly all of the operations and maintenance functions had been contracted to a U.S. company that was required to hire, train and eventually transition the work to Afghans. Corps of Engineers officials have been pushing the pace of transition.
Rather than adding new buildings to the list for the U.S. contractor to maintain, the Corps of Engineers has started to sign over buildings directly to the Afghan government, with the expectation that the newly trained property managers can assume responsibility for their upkeep immediately, Brannon said.
The process is working well, he said.
"It turns out that the guys were paying attention. They understand how to operate and maintain these bases. They just hadn't had to do it," Brannon said.
"What we're finding is that as we're removing buildings from the contract, giving them to the Afghans, they like being able to control their own destiny," he said.
The changeover at Darulaman Garrison was an important step in the overall transition process. Afghan forces have taken responsibility for nearly every building on the complex. To ensure that the mission didn't suffer, coalition forces retained oversight of the power plant, the water plant and the waste water plant to allow for more training on those complex systems.
"The lines that go to the buildings, the lines that go in the buildings, that's all in the Afghans' hands. Our contractors don't go inside the buildings anymore," Brannon said.
There are 167 buildings at Darulaman. The U.S. maintains just 10.
Based on that success, the Corps of Engineers has been increasing the pace of turning over other projects to the Afghans across the country, said Hess, who's also on a temporary assignment in Afghanistan, and otherwise serves as the chief of Installation Logistics for the Army at the Pentagon.
Overall, Afghan forces have taken the operations and maintenance at 1,061 buildings since November 2011.
"It's been breathtaking to see how fast and how well the Afghans have been able to take over O&M responsibilities at a lot of places," she said.