Budget Woes Driving Scientists, Engineers Away from Defense Department Jobs

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The budget crunch is a new factor preventing the Defense Department from recruiting and retaining top talent within its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, a recent report found.

“The activities of the Department of Defense devoted to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are a small and diminishing part of the nation’s overall science and engineering enterprise,” said an October 2012 report titled, “Assuring the U.S. Department of Defense a Strong Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Workforce.”

The report — which was based on an 18-month study by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council — focused on problems with immigration laws, outsourcing and the aging workforce.

The dwindling defense budget is a new issue facing the STEM workforce, the report said. The tightening of the budget, defense contractors becoming more “risk-averse,” and increasingly complicated acquisition laws, have slowed down hiring.

Having an underprepared STEM workforce within the Defense Department is a matter of national security, the report said.

Strict immigration laws make it difficult for many foreigners to receive citizenship, the report said. H1-B visas, for high-tech jobs, have caps on them, which prevent many highly qualified engineers and scientists from working in the country. Furthermore, obtaining green cards and becoming citizens can take up to a decade, the report said. Since many positions require security clearances, the Defense Department cannot always procure top talent at a fast enough rate.

Another problem for the department is increased global demand for STEM professionals. As demand grows, engineering and science job opportunities are becoming increasingly prevalent and attractive around the globe, drawing many top candidates away from the United States, the report said.

It also pointed to the aging STEM workforce within the Defense Department. As current employees move closer to retirement age, not enough quality replacements are coming in to take over.

In 2005, the median age of defense industry STEM workforce members was 45, but increased to 47 by 2010, despite an overall increase of employees under the age of 35, the report said.

American youth are not interested in STEM fields,  the report also asserted. Of students graduating with doctorates in U.S. engineering schools, more than half are non-U.S. citizens. Furthermore, of those non-U.S. citizen graduates, 38 percent left the United States within five years, according to 2004 data from the National Science Board. Of those already within the Defense Department’s workforce, half of them only have bachelor’s degrees, the report said.

The Defense Department also faces a quality problem, the report emphasized.

“Because of the relatively small and declining size of the DoD STEM workforce there is no current or projected shortage of STEM workers for the DoD and its industrial contractor base except in specialized, but important, areas — such as cybersecurity and selected intelligence fields. … [But] the STEM issue for the DoD is the quality of its workforce, not the quantity available. The DoD needs a suitable share of the most talented STEM professionals,” the report said.

Throughout history, conflict has come at often surprising times — the report cited the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the attack on Pearl Harbor as two unpredictable events that started World War I and World War II, respectively. It is during these times of unanticipated war or conflict that elite scientists and engineers are needed; but with a cadre that is becoming increasingly small and less advanced, the nation could be put in jeopardy, the report said.

The report offered a number of initiatives and goals that the Defense Department could take to help preserve the quality of its specialized workers. Among them were: making the Defense Department a better place to work; establishing easier pathways for scientists and engineers to work for the department, including easing security clearance requirements; working on global activities with other countries to analyze technology developments; better managing of careers and continuing employee’s education; and revamping its human resource department so it can better respond to changes in the STEM industry.

“Science and technology and the DoD STEM workforce are increasingly critical to U.S. military capability. Technological surprise has proved to be decisive in past conflicts and will likely be so in the future. The ongoing globalization of STEM requires that DoD readdress its workforce policies and practices to ensure that it retains access to a significant share of the best and brightest STEM talents available,” the report said.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Topics: Research and Development

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