Imagine our world without the Internet, Teflon, global positioning satellites, superglue and radar.
Those technologies — and many others that we encounter daily in our lives — originally were innovations developed by Defense Department scientists and eventually transferred into the civilian sector.
But with a large percentage of Defense Department scientists poised to retire during the next few years, and a diminishing pool of younger talent from which to fill their ranks, the nation’s technological prowess appears to be in jeopardy of beginning a downward trend.
In light of current conflicts and the increasing displays of advanced weapons systems in militarizing countries, maintaining that edge in science and technology is more important than ever.
Engineers and scientists comprise 10 percent of the 600,000 civilian employees working for the Pentagon. Of that work force, 12 percent is eligible to retire this year. But by 2010, Defense Department officials expect that number to jump from 7,200 individuals to 13,000.
“Should they go at the same time, we probably will be in trouble,” said Patricia S. Bradshaw, deputy under secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy.
But statistics indicate a mass exodus of those workers is not likely. Individuals typically stay in the Defense Department workforce about four years beyond their first date of retirement eligibility, which would buy the department extra time to hire replacements.
During the past three years, 2,700 engineers have retired. The Pentagon, trying to fill those vacancies, has hired 2,500 new workers during that timeframe.
“Obviously, we’re not satisfied with that, even though we are at this point keeping pace with the departures,” said Bradshaw.
The situation has exposed another problem: there is a middle-age gap in the engineering workforce, a residual effect from the industry-wide trimming and consolidation of the 1990s. As a result, the force is top-heavy, like an inverted pyramid, with the bulk of researchers above the age of 45, and far fewer numbers of those below the age of 30.
But there is some good news on that front: of the new hires during the last three years, the average age is 33.
A more worrisome long-term concern for the Defense Department, however, is the declining interest in science and technology found in school-age children.
“This is really a national crisis and a national issue,” said Bradshaw. “We are, in fact, concerned that we are seeing a trend at the university level — a declining trend in the number of graduates that are receiving degrees in an engineering or scientific discipline that would be appropriate or of interest to the Department of Defense,” said Bradshaw.
In 2004, there were 1.4 million bachelor’s degrees awarded, and 32.3 percent of those were in the science and engineering field, according to the National Science Foundation. The percentage shows a slight increase in numbers since 2000. But not since 1970 has the science and engineering fields enjoyed more than a 35 percent share of bachelor’s degrees. Advanced degrees in those disciplines follow similar trends.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, finds itself in competition against private companies for workers.
To generate interest in working for the government, the Office of Personnel Management has begun a “career patterns” initiative to assess departments’ work cultures. Perks such as job sharing, flexible hours and telecommuting appeal to a new generation of workers who prefer to have a work-life balance, said Bradshaw.
Highly bureaucratic work environments typically have dissuaded younger generations from pursuing civil service careers. The Defense Department is examining how it might change that.
“We are actively pursuing that, not only for engineering, but also for other mission critical occupations,” said Bradshaw.
In the private sector, companies have begun luring recent graduates. At Raytheon, several young engineers work in an advanced concepts lab, where they are given more autonomy to develop their ideas.
Under a science, mathematics and research program, the Defense Department provides financial assistance to students who enter a service agreement. This year, the Pentagon also launched a student training and recruitment program. It has hired two college students at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and Michigan Tech University to market the Defense Department to engineering students.
“We’re hoping very shortly to see the fruition of these efforts, by starting to get resumes in and seeing if we can’t tap into these nuggets that we haven’t used before,” said Bradshaw. “There’s a broad consensus in the Department of Defense that a robust research and development program is an important element of our military advantage. And we need to maintain that. It is important to us to not just stay up with the departure of our talent into retirement, but to try to get ahead of that curve.”
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