A Modest Workforce Proposal

Workforce reports from the U.S. National Academies have sometimes recommended large-bore, even radical changes. The best example is the 2007 report, . It recommended ways to improve K-12 education, big changes in high-skill immigration rules, and the creation of 30,000 new scholarships to increase the number of scientists in the pipeline, among other measures. Writing in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman praised Gathering Storm as “the new New Deal urgently called for by our times.”

More rare—and often more effective—are narrowly targeted, modest reports aimed at meeting a specific need. , which was released last week by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering, is an example. Instead of aiming to remake America’s scientific training infrastructure—with all the risks that entails—this report’s recommendations aim to help the Department of Defense (DOD) attract, recruit, and retain the scientists and technical staff it needs to meet the nation’s security needs, mostly from among those already in the workforce. Experts interviewed by Science Careers described the report as a breath of fresh air, although one of the report’s central recommendations failed to win universal praise.

“I see the narrowness as a real strength of the report.” —Paula Stephan

DOD convened the impressively named Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Workforce Needs for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base to address what DOD itself perceives as difficulty attracting high-caliber talent for its defense-related research and development projects. The report notes that many of the best young scientists are finding better pay and more exciting work opportunities in industry instead of opting for DOD employment.

To help DOD recruit successfully from that talent pool, the report’s authors recommend increasing remuneration for key positions and offering more enticing scientific opportunities. To ensure that DOD is able to quickly scale up its research and development efforts in times of crisis, they encourage DOD to develop programs that can quickly train workers to a master’s degree level in fields needed to meet DOD’s needs. Finally, the report recommends reassessing the number and types of jobs that require a security clearance—and exploring whether some of DOD’s needs could be met by hiring noncitizens.

According to C. Daniel Mote Jr., the retired president of the University of Maryland, College Park, who co-chaired the committee (with Norman Augustine, chair of the Gathering Storm committee), the available information didn’t support a large-bore approach that focused on the workforce as a whole. “Initially, the committee thought this was going to be much more of a numbers problem, not being able to find enough people to recruit and so forth,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that did not come up. … No one seems to think that’s a big issue.” According to Mote, DOD and its contractors account for about 2% of the nation’s STEM workers—a lot, but not enough to swing national education or hiring policy in any particular direction. So the committee decided to focus on what DOD could do to make its jobs more attractive to the available talent, he says.

“We made a conscious decision fairly early on … to focus on things the DOD could actually do,” adds committee member Sharon Levin, an economist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “We were well aware of the other literature out there, but the fact of the matter is, DOD cannot tackle the big picture.”

A sound approach

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who reviewed the report prior to publication, says she was impressed by the report’s grounding in reality. “I see the narrowness as a real strength of the report,” Stephan writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “Given the size of DOD STEM workforce needs, the committee would have been hard pressed to find evidence that an overall shortage of STEM workers exists. Indeed, there is little evidence in most fields in STEM today that a shortage exists. It is refreshing that the committee refrained from using ‘shortage’ language.”

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about workforce issues, also praises the committee’s approach. “The idea that you shouldn’t blame this on the applicants seems pretty refreshing, that [you’re not saying] there’s not enough of them because they’re not coming to work for us. And it does seem to acknowledge that there’s a market, so that’s a good thing.”

Though the committee didn’t discuss which recommendations to prioritize, there was, Mote says, broad agreement that DOD needs to do whatever it takes to preserve its capacity for innovation as modern warfare moves away from large-scale defense systems, and as the department’s “old-timers” retire. To that end, the committee recommends that DOD implement “unconventional programs” to attract and retain young scientists who want to work on cutting-edge projects. These programs would offer scientists the chance to work on open-ended projects without clear applications in mind—that is, to do innovative basic research. “Those are the kinds of problems that really highly capable STEM people would like to work on,” Mote says.

The report recommends that DOD open its purse strings more widely to raise salaries for essential positions. The expected cuts to DOD’s budget will make that difficult, but there’s little choice: DOD will need to find the money to remain competitive in hiring for these key positions, Levin says. For entry-level and midlevel positions, many of which can be short-term, DOD salaries are already competitive with industry, Mote says.

Cappelli believes that’s a good approach. If DOD can lure young scientists to work there for 5 years to 10 years before they move on, DOD will still be able to utilize those scientists during their peak productive years, and the scientists will gain experience that makes them valuable to future employers. Another good idea in the report, Cappelli says, is the recommendation to increase DOD’s capacity to rapidly train educated, though not necessarily STEM-trained, soldiers and civilians in the skills needed to fill skills gaps that arise suddenly. “Inventory and human capital are really expensive to maintain,” he says. “It makes perfect sense.”

Should foreign scientists do DOD research?

More controversial is the report’s recommendation to explore whether more defense jobs should be available to workers without security clearances so that foreign STEM workers could fill them. Norman Matloff, a computer scientist at the University of California, Davis, who studies STEM workforce issues and immigration, says the report is “a bit inconsistent” on this issue. In places, the report recognizes that there’s no shortage of qualified STEM workers to fill DOD’s needs. But this recommendation seems to suggest that there is a shortage. Such contradictions can arise, Matloff notes, when committee members represent different interests. Still, “it’s a bad idea,” Matloff says.

Stephan disagrees, noting that “although the number of STEM workers available is sufficient for DOD needs, there can always be specialized areas in which a mismatch between needs and available supply exists.” Being able to reach out to foreign workers to fill those specific gaps gives DOD “flexibility in making matches of high quality,” she says.

Mote acknowledges that the foreign workers recommendation is the report’s most controversial, but he expects the whole report to stir debate inside DOD. “It’s really asking for a lot of cultural change,” he says.

DOD press operations officer Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan tells Science Careers via e-mail that DOD is conducting an internal review of the report but cannot comment on any of the recommendations at this time. Levin, though, hopes the report’s directness—and the urgency of the issue—will make the committee’s recommendations easier to swallow. “The DOD knows it’s very important, it’s essential, but on the other hand [DOD is] becoming a small fish in the big pool of STEM talent, which is global,” she says. “So the hope is that things we’ve suggested can improve the ability of DOD to obtain the best quality of talent in its workforce.”

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