STEM workforceDOD faces shortfall in quality STEM workers; overhaul of recruitment policies needed

Published 31 October 2012

The principal challenge for the U.S. Department of Defense’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) work force is recruiting and retaining top quality professionals for critical positions, says a new report; the agency must become — and be perceived as — an appealing career destination for the most capable scientists, engineers, and technicians, all of whom are in great demand in the global marketplace

The principal challenge for the U.S. Department of Defense’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) work force is recruiting and retaining top quality professionals for critical positions, says a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council.  The agency must become — and be perceived as — an appealing career destination for the most capable scientists, engineers, and technicians, all of whom are in great demand in the global marketplace.

To that end, DOD recruitment policies and practices should be reviewed and overhauled as necessary to ensure that the department is fully competitive with all sectors of American industry and the global STEM marketplace.  The agency will also need to reassess its requirement for security clearances for some STEM positions.

STEM assignments at the DOD that involve more procedure and bureaucracy than technical challenge and mission are unlikely to satisfy the high-quality STEM professionals the DOD needs to recruit,” said C.D. Mote, professor of engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.  “Making DOD employment an attractive career choice to the most qualified and motivated professionals will pay enormous dividends to the department and the nation.”

A National Research Council release notes that the report says that more effective management of the STEM work force is needed to meet the challenges in recruiting and retention of top talent.  Career growth at DOD is limited, employee skills are often underutilized, and the hiring process is slow, impersonal, and sometimes opaque.  The report recommends an overhaul of policies, which could entail expediting the recruitment process and security clearances and making a commitment both to provide meaningful opportunities for technical work and to provide career development opportunities including education.

It’s virtually impossible to forecast the STEM skills and number of individuals possessing those skills that will be needed by DOD beyond the near term because of the increasing rates of advancement in science and technology and the geopolitical uncertainties affecting DOD demands,” said Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corp. and committee co-chair.  “The fundamental issue, therefore, is maintaining the necessary quality, agility, and skills mix.  It is critical to include workers at the forefront of emerging, potentially critical technical areas, as well as those capable of redirecting their careers into these new areas.”

Because DOD and its contractors need access to the most talented STEM professionals globally, the department should re-examine the need for security clearances in select positions in order to permit non-U.S. citizens to enter portions of the talent pool.  Furthermore, the H-1B visa system should be modified to provide DOD with substantially more talent in areas of need such as cyber security.

In addition, DOD should be prepared to educate highly capable, but not STEM qualified individuals rapidly with master’s degrees in science and engineering at times of urgency, as is done in the Naval Postgraduate School.  The DOD SMART scholarship program is also a proven method of attracting top talent to the agency and should be expanded, the report says.  SMART is a civilian “scholarship for service” program that provides full undergraduate or graduate tuition, living and book allowances, summer internships, health insurance, and other benefits contingent on year-for-year post-graduate employment within DOD.

The U.S. Department of Defense sponsored the NAE-NRC study. 

— Read more in Assuring the U.S. Department of Defense a Strong Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Workforce

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