One participant described how, within DOD, “learning by doing” is essential for those measured by their ability to perform in their jobs. One participant noted that systems engineers cannot be graduated but must be “grown” (i.e., must learn on the job), a point on which many participants concurred. Nonetheless, this learning can be expedited with formal training, particularly at the graduate level. The practice of science and engineering, including management, is important for DOD. Lifelong technical training is important, and not only in university education. The pace of change in the STEM fields is sufficiently great that individuals’ critical skills can obsolesce in the absence of continued learning. Participants suggested that DOD might address this perceived problem. One participant described another tool available to DOD in its system of schools operated on military bases, which could become more oriented toward STEM and innovation. This system might provide a testbed experience that could help serve DOD STEM workforce needs by leading to changes in education in feeder schools and universities.
Past attempts to predict the state of the world that will drive DOD’s demand for STEM talent have been unsuccessful, as noted by several participants. The same has been true of the ability to predict major new technological advancements. Rather than depending on prognostication, a number of participants opined that DOD might instead emphasize a strategy that incorporates uncertainty. One committee member suggested that this inability to forecast points to a need for a workforce composed of people who are current in their field but also prepared academically and psychologically to change the course of their careers relatively rapidly when likely future changes in demand and technologies occur. In view of the latter, and the uncertainties about future budgets, some participants suggested that the best responses are in the realm of flexibility and adaptation rather than in the creation of new degree programs or the expansion of existing ones.
One participant expressed the view that DOD has the tools that it needs to make its recruitment and retention of STEM personnel more aggressive and competitive. DOD laboratories and the acquisition workforce have demonstration authority to set pay scales, and the current personnel system will allow the payment of recruitment and retention bonuses when these are indicated. Timeliness is a very serious issue both in hiring and in the granting of clearances. The former can be addressed by direct-hire authority. The latter seems to be in a world of its own.
Several participants discussed tools available to DOD on the supply side, where DOD has been able to offer summer employment in its laboratories to young people who might be inspired to return later—a tool often used in industry—and which affords the laboratories a low-risk opportunity to identify high-quality candidates for future employment. DOD might consider making its work more attractive to budding engineers: the fast track for acquisition—described by one of the keynote presenters—greatly increases the chances that a project engineer will see his or her work to fruition. No one wants to work on a project that takes 20 years to finish and incurs the tangible risk of cancellation. One participant expressed skepticism about the efficacy of supply-side measures, observing that defense is today too small a fraction of the nation’s output—4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—to have a significant impact on supply.
Several participants observed that DOD does an admirable job of providing career management for the uniformed military but does little in this domain for the civilian side. If career management could be enhanced on the civilian side, the attractiveness of government careers would likely increase greatly. Major “Tier 1” suppliers, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Boeing Company, all keep a focus on recruiting and maintaining their STEM workforces. Boeing, for example, is able to move personnel between its civilian and military businesses to mitigate the impact of a downturn in one sector. The DOD does not appear to have the same focus and priority for the continuity of its STEM workforce.
Several participants expressed concern over a further obstacle that limits the pool of applicants—the exclusion of foreign-born people—owing to the need for cleared personnel to be citizens. The comparison is made to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory system, which allows non-citizens to perform certain work. Clearances are required for critical security positions; nonetheless, there is scope within the current DOD system of controls for reducing the number of positions requiring clearances, depending on security threats.