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   OCTOBER 2012     

 


 

career focus
Defense Industry STEM Jobs

By John R. Platt

What is the future of high-tech employment in the U.S. defense industry? Well, the defense industry itself is asking that question as part of an 18-month study to assess the long-term STEM needs of the Department of Defense (DOD). The National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council launched the study in August 2011 and the committee in charge of it released an interim report this past summer. The study aims to "assess the STEM capabilities that the DOD will need in order to meet its goals, objectives, and priorities; to assess whether the current DOD workforce and strategy will meet those needs; and to identify and evaluate options and recommend strategies that the department could use to help meet its future STEM needs."

Although some of the interim report's observations and recommendations might be a bit obvious, it "makes some salient points to consider," says Roger Oliva, vice chair of the IEEE-USA Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy. "Everyone who doesn't know this should read it."

A Changing Workforce

The report identifies a number of factors that will affect the DOD-related workforce over the next five to 15 years.

For one thing, the current workforce is aging. Recent hiring freezes and workforce reductions have slowed the entry of new employees, which means that the current workforce is rapidly moving toward retirement without replacements in the pipeline. According to the report, approximately 45% of current DOD engineers with at least 20 years of experience are 50 or 55 years old or older, putting them on the fast-track toward retirement. The numbers for employees in physical sciences, IT and biological sciences aren't much different. This could result in a significant brain drain over the next 10 years.

For another thing, the report argues that there may not be enough U.S. citizens trained in STEM fields to fill these jobs in the coming years. Part of this, the report says, is because "American youth seem less attracted to careers in STEM fields." The report is particularly critical toward K-12 education, which it calls "one of the poorest...in the industrialized world," and which it says will further affect how many U.S. students go on to study STEM topics.

The committee also points out that more than half of the doctoral degrees from U.S. engineering schools are currently going to non-U.S. citizens, a large percentage of whom leave the country within five years of getting their degrees. Since DOD-related jobs usually require security clearances, this limits the field of potential candidates that can fill the positions that will open as the current workforce retires.

Globalization: The Double-Edged Sword

Globalization has created a lot of opportunities for a lot of people around the world, but it has also created threats that the DOD feels it will need to address and risks to their supply of employee candidates.

In terms of specific threats, the committee says that so-called "failed states" present a growing hazard to U.S. security, as does the proliferation of nuclear technology. Deterrence through military superiority is far less effective in modern times. Meanwhile, the threat of conflicts in regions such as the Middle East and Korea (and even the Arctic) has grown, as has the threat of terrorism. In other words, the very nature of warfare has changed.

At the same time, new technologies create new threats, especially since technology is now much more global than it was even 20 years ago. "For most technologies," the report reads, "the most advanced work is no longer being conducted within the Department of Defense or its contractor community." And the growth of the Internet and "porous geopolitical borders" mean knowledge about new technologies spreads "at literally the speed of light."

As for employees, the United States is no longer necessarily the best market for their talents. "Opportunities are increasing in many parts of the world for scientists and engineers both U.S. citizens and non-citizens to build productive careers in their native lands and in other countries because talent is in great demand everywhere," according to the report.

Globalization might also affect which companies can take DOD contracts, says Paul Kostek, past president of IEEE-USA and a member of the IEEE-USA Career and Workforce Policy Committee. "Companies have workforces all over the place now. What happens when a company's talent pool in a particular area doesn't reside in the United States? If the talent is outside the country, do you use it or not? The DOD is going to struggle with that."

Making DOD Work More Desirable?

The interim report lays out a few "constructive steps" the DOD could take to attract more STEM workers in the near future, although the committee does not go into much detail at this time. Steps cited include making the DOD a more desirable place to work; creating more "pathways" for scientists and engineers to work at the DOD; increasing the investment in STEM employees; and supporting their career growth.

Kostek says the DOD needs to compete in the employee marketplace just like any other organization. "If people have other options, if someone is paying more, they're going to go where the opportunities are better," he says.

"It's really a business decision for an employee to work for the DOD," Kostek says. "What are the salaries? What are the benefits? What are the opportunities?" People might also see a defense job as being riskier and more unstable than corporate or academic work. He points out previous periods of defense-industry contraction, as well as the inherent risk that contracts could be cancelled.

Security clearances may be another hurdle for some employees not because the employees can't get them, but because it limits what they can say about the work they're doing. "I spent a bunch of years doing defense work where the work was classified and you can't talk much about it to your family or your peers," Kostek says. Some people perceive that as a risk to their careers if they will not be able to discuss what they have been doing with their next potential employers.

Beyond those risks, DOD careers can be attractive to people who are interested in very specific technical challenges related to the work. Kostek asks, "Certain people might be willing to work for less if they have a keen interest in a particular area or a personal belief that what they're doing has more value than another type of job. Some of it's just going to be a sales pitch for DOD folks to say, 'here's why you should come to work in our projects.'"

Other Points to Ponder

Interestingly, the report finds that there are actually no current shortages of STEM workers except in a handful of specialized subfields, such as cybersecurity. The committee also says that forecasting the future need for specific skills is not possible because technology advances so quickly and military budgets are unpredictable. Instead, the committee suggests focusing on flexibility and adaptability.

Meanwhile, the committee does discuss the need to attract the highest quality STEM employees, and one suggestion for that is liberalizing policies related to the hiring of non-U.S. citizens. Russell Lefevre, past president of IEEE-USA and a member of the Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy, agrees with this, but says "I think it will be very difficult to implement the necessary changes. The DOD and other important defense-related organizations have a long history of being resistant to reducing the security classification requirements."

The report also suggests creating additional "skunk works" programs for radical innovation as a means of attracting top-level talent, but Lefevre says the DOD is already full of skunk works programs that are very effective. "DARPA has been instrumental in bringing high technology into the DOD since its inception," he says. He also notes the existence of DOD-supported federally funded research and Development centers (FFRDCs) like MIT Lincoln Laboratory. "FFRDC employees are paid very well and have high prestige in the community."

For IEEE employees considering work in the defense industry, Kostek says it's a great place to work, "but always go into it with the thought that it's not going to be permanent." That's true in all fields these days, he says, so he suggests that people go into new assignments with clear expectations of what they will learn from the job, what they will be able to contribute, and where they might be able to go next.

 

Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.

 

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.

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