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Defense department hears call for new way to develop STEM talent

A civilian advisory board led by Google's Eric Schmidt has urged the DoD to create new career paths for its STEM talent to accelerate the military's innovation capability.

The U.S. Department of Defense wants to improve its ability to develop its STEM talent -- people with science, technology, engineering and math skills. The DoD faces a talent management problem tied directly to the nation's ability to defend itself.

There's a lot of frustration being voiced at the defense department over its innovation capability. To solve this problem, the department may be headed toward a talent management systems makeover.

Calling for a change of course

"We're too complex, we're too bureaucratic, we're too regulated, we're too risk averse," said Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson, the vice chief of staff, at a meeting last week of the Defense Innovation Board, a civilian advisory board headed by Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google.

Eric Schmidt, executive chair of GoogleEric Schmidt

That's worrisome, explained Wilson, at the board's Oct. 25 meeting, because the U.S. -- from a technological point of view -- is in a situation in which it is "too easy for others to catch up and pass us up unless we change."

With many technologies, the U.S. was once "number one, clearly," said Wilson. "But I would say, today, that case can be questioned."

Technologies where U.S. leadership may be in doubt include artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing.

The DoD manages a total workforce of 2.1 million active duty and reserve personnel and approximately 770,000 civilian personnel. That makes it the nation's largest employer, followed by Wal-Mart, which employs 2.3 million globally.

Underscoring the importance of STEM talent

"In order to recruit top talent, the department needs to demonstrate that it is a place where individuals can build careers in STEM," said Marne Levine, Instagram's chief operating officer and a member of the advisory group.

"The Department of Defense leaders often underscore the importance of the STEM disciplines, but there is currently no sufficient formal process in place to recruit, train, develop and sustain a core workforce with these skill sets," said Levine.

One person who studied the hiring of STEM talent in the federal workforce is Jeri Buchholz, who recently retired as NASA's chief human capital officer.

Buchholz, in an interview, said NASA is such a desirable place for people with STEM skills that "people would work at NASA even if you didn't pay them -- and that's the truth of the matter."

But in most other federal agencies, the number of workers with STEM talent is so relatively small "that the unique employment requirements of a STEM workforce never bubbled to the surface," said Buchholz. That's true for the DoD, as well.

New career path suggested

Indeed, the DoD's civilian advisory board is recommending that the department create a new career path focused on innovation and people with STEM skills.

However, the DoD has rigid rules that may stymie STEM career paths. That includes making sure that personnel are interchangeable and trained in other areas.

Schmidt, at the recent board meeting, told of a conversation with a young officer who was "exquisitely trained in cybersecurity," but was at the end of a two-year appointment. The officer was "going to be transferred away from cybersecurity into something which he viewed as far less strategic," he said.

We're too complex, we're too bureaucratic, we're too regulated, we're too risk averse.
Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson

A growing trend in human capital management systems is the use of software to recognize high-potential employees. These systems use a variety of performance metrics, including personality assessments, to identify people who may achieve great things.

Gen. Wilson alluded to high-potential individuals in a story about Army Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the World War II pilot who lead an attack on Japan four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Doolittle, said Wilson, went from Lieutenant Colonel to Lieutenant General "in 801 days, or 2.2 years. Today, that takes about 20 years. So how do I think differently about this -- how do I attract, recruit and retain talent at a different scale? And how do we incentivize folks like Jimmy Doolittle?"

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