The data made available to this study indicate that for the foreseeable future the pool of available STEM professionals in the United States is large enough to support the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) needs, except possibly in a few select areas like certified cybersecurity professionals (Brannen and Fryer-Biggs, 2012; Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010). This assertion is made because DOD’s needs represent only a small fraction of the total nationwide requirement. The nation as a whole may face a numerical shortage of STEM workers now or in the future, but the committee has little evidence that this issue will directly impact DOD’s ability to meet its personnel needs. As noted in Chapter 3 (in the section “STEM Workforce in the Defense Industrial Base”), and as the committee learned at its August 2011 workshop, there is evidence that DOD and its industrial base do not always have the right number of the right skills and the right quality at the right place and time (Swallow, 2011). However, this issue seems to be less a strategic numerical issue and more a problem of effective management within the department and organizations that impact DOD. It is the committee’s assessment that the core of DOD’s problem is about the management of demand, and not about supply. The fundamental issue is quality, agility, and skills mix in the DOD STEM workforce. The recommendations in this report address this issue. Less-than-effective management of the DOD’s STEM workforce inhibits recruiting and retention by limiting career growth, underutilizing employee skills, and constraining the available pool of talent.
The committee notes that the attention paid to the education and career development of uniformed personnel is much greater and more disciplined than that paid to civilian DOD employees. It believes that more attention to civilian career development would benefit both DOD and its employees, especially given the challenges that lie ahead.
The evolution to a globalized economy and a globalized industrial base has put substantial management stress on the way DOD conducts its mission. The overseas migration of manufacturing and R&D activities relevant to defense (such as batteries and semiconductors) not only poses acquisition challenges, but also requires DOD to engage more openly with non-U.S. STEM professionals. In particular, the DOD and the Congress have not resolved their competing desires to acquire capable and cost-effective systems and services from a global base, while supporting the U.S. economy and buying from trusted U.S. suppliers. One result of this issue is an acquisition process that puts under-empowered personnel into the nearly impossible position of trying to resolve the dilemma at their level. There is a need for a more comprehensive set of policies that will guide DOD in its interaction with the global market place. This effect can be seen in export control policies that assume that the technologies in the United States are always the best and worth keeping locked up (Epstein, 2011; National Research Council, 2009; Vest, 2011). Increasingly, expertise and innovation in core technologies are occurring outside the United States,
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.
Finding 6.3. The STEM issue for the DOD is the quality of its workforce, not the quantity available. The DOD needs a suitable share of the most talented STEM professionals. The decisions they make within DOD are highly leveraged, impacting the efforts of very large numbers of people and enterprises both inside and outside the government.
The testimony received by the committee and all of the data collected indicate that the major industrial suppliers of DOD are doing a good job of anticipating traditional and non-traditional STEM needs and acting aggressively to ensure that they have talent available.1 They are also doing their part in supporting activities that will improve the available talent by offering educational opportunities and career development programs as a part of their recruitment and retention process. Of course, the situation could change. Several of the recommendations made in this report will apply to the industrial base as well as to the government.
Finding 6.4. The career development support for the DOD uniformed STEM workforce is excellent, whereas the career development support for the DOD civilian STEM workforce is far less developed. The defense-related industry lies somewhere between them.
As always, the future facing DOD is fraught with many sources of uncertainty. However, the committee does not think that the current level of uncertainty is unprecedented.
The committee was made aware of various lists of emerging new technologies that might have potential value to DOD, including one from ASDRE.2 While not all lists are the same, they are consistent enough to use as a basis for addressing the question of uncertainty and how to deal with it. In the committee’s judgment, all of the listed technologies promise future value, but it is not clear that any of them are likely to be, by themselves, game-changers, as was the case for nuclear weapons, digital electronics, and information systems.
In the face of the uncertainties in how technology will evolve, as well as the larger questions posed by geopolitical events, there is a temptation to try to forecast the future and take significant actions now in anticipation of that future. However, the committee lacks confidence that these technology forecasts can be accurate enough to rely on as a strong basis for planning. The committee is supported in this skepticism by noting the nation’s past demonstrated inability to provide accurate forecasts.3 The committee believes that this lack of confidence in forecasting argues for a more incremental approach, as well as for personnel policies that will increase the department’s flexibility in adapting to unforeseen requirements. The committee thinks that the estimated sources of uncertainty described above are very likely to provide sufficient warning to permit an adequate incremental response to technology exploitation.
DOD should invest in emerging technologies with levels and priorities indicated by an assessment of their potential value to DOD. These investments will advance knowledge, mature understanding, and develop expertise in new fields. As these emerging technologies prove their value and increase in importance, more money and people will flow to the fields through DOD and congressional appropriations. The situation will evolve over time, and there will not be an unforeseen need for large workforce changes. The firms in the industrial base will use
1 See, for example, pp. 40-44 of National Research Council (2012).
2 See, for example, pp. 8-18 of National Research Council (2012).
3 See, for example, Anders (2008).
these indicators to shape their own workforce in support of their business strategies, given the signals of priorities and commitments of DOD organizations. This evolutionary approach has been the U.S. historical norm, and the committee does not see that a change in strategy is needed or appropriate.
In addition to investing in technological progress in accordance with DOD judgment on priorities, the committee suggests that DOD focus on a few difficult problems that, if solved, would make significant changes in military capabilities. By forcing a focus on important missions, there will be a need to integrate technology with engineering and related systems and operational concepts. In current military operations, a focus on mitigation of improvised explosive devices has had a significant impact on the ability to integrate solutions. The committee would estimate that “portable power” could be another example whereby a new technology could be integrated into new solutions. These hard problems should be related to enduring military needs, e.g., the need to know where the enemy is, the need to know where one’s own troops are, the need for rapid maneuver, and so on.
Finding 6.5. To address enduring military needs, there is an opportunity to integrate technology with engineering and related systems and operational concepts in current and future operations. Some examples include technology for negating improvised explosive devices (IEDs); portable power; and technology for non-intrusive identification of individuals and tracking of their location.
The committee recognizes that systematically improving the quality of the assignments in DOD is a massive task that involves the whole institution and how it does business. The committee has had neither the time nor the resources to attempt to address this issue in any comprehensive way. However, this aspect of DOD’s situation represents a fundamental problem that inhibits DOD’s access to the best and brightest talent, and it is worthy of the attention of the most senior management levels of the department. Making DOD employment attractive to the most qualified and motivated professionals will pay enormous dividends to the department and the nation.
Clarifying the overall objectives of the department and establishing confidence that the government leadership supports these objectives are a necessary foundation. Focusing on the assignment of responsibilities, authorities, and modes of accountability, and holding to these assignments in execution, are also a necessary foundation of sound management. A process of surveying and assessing the quality of each assigned position is a necessary part of any effort to change the environment.
Each of the Armed Services has an elaborate process for attending to the education, training, and career development of its military professionals. The committee believes that a similar focus on the civilian workforce would cause STEM professionals to view a DOD career more favorably. There are a number of ways that this might be enabled, including temporary assignment in industry, academia, or overseas.
There are now several rapid response organizations in DOD4 aimed at providing quick response to commanders’ needs in current conflicts Although the impetus for this capability was the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rapid injection of some technologies and capabilities into the field should continue. It is a domain that can give STEM professionals more diverse experience and immediate feedback than can participating in a long major system acquisition cycle.
Finding 6.6. Reliable forecasting of the STEM skills needed by the DOD beyond the near term is simply not possible because of the increasing rates of advancement in science and technology and the unpredictability of military needs. Flexibility, capability, and relevance in the DOD STEM workforce are the essential characteristics sought.
The committee’s principal recommendation for improving recruitment and retention is that the department as a whole should prioritize the issues and demonstrate a sustained, serious focus through well-advertised and aggressive actions.
The recruiting process should be made more personal for the potential employee. He or she should have information about the assignment and the supervisory structure of the position. Someone should be assigned to shepherd the paperwork associated with the hiring process. The potential employee should receive status reports on the progress of the process.
For a high-priority set of positions and potential employees, such as cybersecurity professionals, DOD should continue to exercise the authority to temporarily employ an individual while waiting for the clearance process. This action would require the development of useful activities for this period. In addition, expanding DOD’s internship program, sponsoring summer-hire programs, and identifying talent early could allow the clearance process to begin while high-potential individuals are still completing their degrees. In either case, the department should also take aggressive action to shorten the period required for completing a clearance.
DOD should continue as well as expand broadly available scholarship programs (such as SMART) that are aimed at improving the quality of its current and potential employees and are tied to a commitment to service. We believe this action would be valued by the employee and would demonstrate the priority DOD places on the employee.
Anders, G. 2008. Predictions of the past. Wall Street Journal, January 28.
Brannen, K., and Z. Fryer-Biggs. 2012. U.S. short on offensive cyber experts. Defense News, July 2.
Center for Strategic and International Studies. 2010. A Human Capital Crisis in Cybersecurity. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Congressional Budget Office. 2012. Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees. Washington, D.C.: Congress of the United States.
Epstein, G.L. 2011. The National Security Imperative for Global S&T Engagement. Presentation to the Committee on STEM Workforce Needs of the U.S. DOD and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, Washington, D.C., September 19.
National Research Council. 2009. Beyond “Fortress America”: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. 2012. Report of a Workshop on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
Workforce Needs for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Swallow, E. 2011. Northrop Grumman Corporation. Presentation to the Workshop on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, Rosslyn, Va., August 1.
Vest, C.M. 2011. STEM Workforce Needs for U.S. DOD and Defense Industry Base. Presentation to the Workshop on STEM Workforce Needs for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, Rosslyn, Va., August 1.
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