and finding qualified STEM professionals will require new models for hiring and engaging with universities and industry overseas.
Finding 6.1. New technological advancements, often from outside the defense sector and from abroad, are appearing at an increasing rate. Adapting to this new environment requires transformational and long-term changes within the DOD management of its STEM workforce.
Security requirements, including classification and compartmentalization, pose an additional challenge to attracting and retaining high-quality STEM professionals. Engagement with outside researchers is beneficial to the careers and ongoing education of DOD professionals, but those working on classified programs often find few such opportunities. The DOD STEM workforce, particularly those who work in highly sensitive areas, need a range of regular opportunities to interact and share with colleagues in the private sector and academia. These exchanges can be structured around unclassified aspects of DOD work, or even around general research topics of benefit to DOD.
Finding 6.2. Working in classified environments can lead to professional isolation and can have a negative impact on those experts who might otherwise benefit from greater exposure to the discourse in the broader scientific community in which innovation and technology are accelerating.
Many STEM assignments in DOD involve a degree of procedure and bureaucracy that high-quality STEM professionals are unlikely to find satisfying, particularly in comparison to the academic environment. This issue is a particular challenge in the acquisition workforce. STEM skills and education are critical to understanding and evaluating DOD systems, but the nature of day-to-day work is often focused more on program management than science and engineering. Providing meaningful opportunities for technical work while developing management skills is critical to attracting and retaining STEM professionals in the acquisition workforce.
Bureaucratic obstacles also inhibit the recruiting and hiring process. The process is impersonal, slow, and often opaque to the prospective employee. It is not “owned” by the immediate organization in which the particular position exists.
In addition, there will likely be a need to hire STEM professionals in non-traditional fields for which there is neither the current focus on hiring nor a way for their expertise to be properly compensated. Work inspired by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, has highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology. On-going investment in these fields, even as the conflicts wind down, will help DOD attract and retain a relevant workforce by indicating the need for these non-traditional skills. The committee does not, however, detect any significant level of senior management focus and actions to address these problems. These problems are serious, and they deserve attention from the department.
The data on comparable salaries for STEM professionals between DOD and the private sector are complicated by many situational factors. For example, CBO finds that individuals in the federal workforce with a professional or doctoral degree earn (in wages and benefits) about 18 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector (Congressional Budget Office, 2012). However, pay differential is but one factor to consider in recruiting and retaining a high-quality workforce. The potential to serve important national interests by taking a DOD position that is demonstrably useful to the country can be a powerful lure to prospective, highly skilled professionals. Acting to ensure that its positions have these attributes provides a comparative advantage for DOD.
The DOD has several statutory options for specializing its recruiting and retention practices but does not apply them in a comprehensive and coherent manner. A structured program of experimentation in new practices, perhaps focused around the recruitment of professionals in non-traditional STEM fields such as cybersecurity, would provide an improved understanding of the available methods. Such a program would lay the foundation for a rigorous application of specialized recruiting and retention practices to address gaps in the quantity or skills of DOD STEM professionals as they arise in the future.