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Pentagon advised to overhaul science and tech hiring

Dmitriy Shironosov/

The Defense Department must overhaul its recruiting and hiring practices and reassess its requirements for security clearances if it expects to effectively compete for critical workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to a report released Thursday by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council.

Defense’s management of its STEM workforce has been ineffective, according to the report, which concludes an 18-month study to assess the capabilities Defense will need to meet its mission. Limited opportunity for career growth, underutilization of employee skills, and a slow and impersonal hiring process also make it difficult for the department to recruit and retain skilled employees, particularly in STEM fields. 

Also compounding these challenges is the fact that the current STEM workforce at Defense is aging, with a disproportionate segment of scientists and engineers eligible to retire during the next few years, the study found. Recent surveys of college students in STEM fields have not ranked Defense jobs as the most desirable, meaning the department may not have an adequate pipeline to fill positions left vacant by STEM retirees.

“The relatively small fraction of U.S. citizens graduating with first degrees in a STEM field, combined with our demonstrated inability to forecast sudden increases in demand for specialized STEM workers to support national security needs, can place the nation in jeopardy,” the report states.

The report advised Defense to overhaul its current policies in favor of ones that streamline and expedite recruiting, hiring and security clearance processes. Defense also could boost recruitment and retention by creating programs that challenge employees to innovate, and through rotational assignments in government and private-sector jobs. Training and education opportunities for civilian STEM workers also should be commensurate with those offered to military personnel, the report noted.

"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-chairman 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."

In addition, unlike private companies, many of which are fulfilling their STEM capacity needs abroad, Defense and its contractors cannot simply export STEM work to overseas firms. The department should reexamine the need for security clearances in select STEM jobs in order to permit non-U.S. citizens to compete for jobs, the report said. The H-1B visa system also should be modified to provide Defense with a wider talent pool, particularly in the areas such as cybersecurity, it said.

Finally, Defense should be prepared in times of urgency to educate highly capable but not STEM-qualified individuals with advanced degrees in science and engineering, as the Naval Postgraduate School currently does.

Tim McManus, vice president for education at outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said Thursday that he was encouraged by the report’s approach to addressing the issues government faces when recruiting and retaining STEM talent. The report emphasized that the most significant challenges include the quality -- rather than quantity -- of STEM job candidates and the government’s often bureaucratic processes for managing them. 

“It’s not a conversation really about the supply of STEM talent, which is a fairly significant issue as well,” he said. “But oftentimes, when government as a whole looks at the issue of recruiting and retaining STEM talent, the default button automatically gets set to saying that there aren’t enough students to fill the jobs.”

McManus emphasized that the report’s recommendations could apply to all agencies looking to recruit and retain STEM talent. But he also urged agencies to not only think about effectively hiring STEM talent, but also about retaining those workers. The dynamics of the workforce have changed in the past 20 years, he said, and most workers are changing jobs every three to five years. 

“The government needs to recognize that the government and employees of today are different from the government and employees of 20 years ago,” McManus said. “It’s not enough to just bring them in the door because they’re likely not going to stay for 25 to 30 years. We have to make sure the quality is good on the front end, but also make sure their experience is worthwhile so that if they go to the private sector, they want to choose to come back to government."

(Image via Dmitriy Shironosov/

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