Building Tomorrow’s Defense Workforce Today

By Chris Sax

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American national security faces many destabilizing challenges that threaten to upend U.S. military supremacy. These threats, including an unprecedented rate of change in technology, the rise of great power competitors, and the criticality of non-traditional space and cyber warfare domains, exist across an increasingly interconnected international system.

Despite this litany of outside threats, our nation faces an impeding domestic problem the Defense Department and defense industrial base must unite to address: a critical shortage of workers qualified, clearable, and interested in working in our nation’s defense ecosystem. To meet these challenges, NDIA launched the Defense Workforce Project with an aim to create the conditions to develop and maintain a robust, ready, and cleared defense workforce for 2040 and beyond.

The threat posed by an inadequate defense labor pool threatens industry and government alike. America’s STEM education output increasingly lags our international competitors. U.S. manufacturers struggle to find cleared workers to fill their openings for skilled employees. Our defense workforce doesn’t demographically match our population, and new technologies are disrupting how and where we work. The United States and its defense industrial base need a heathy, robust talent pipeline to ensure U.S. forces continue to enjoy decisive competitive advantage across the spectrum of future conflicts.

The Defense Workforce Project is comprised of multiple working groups led by subject matter experts examining these challenges to the future health of the American labor pool. During its first year, NDIA established four working groups focused on: improving pathways for STEM education; bolstering the skilled workforce; exploring the impact of technology on the future of work; and increasing the defense community’s diversity and inclusivity by expanding and tapping into talent pools.

In addition to the Defense Workforce Project, NDIA partnered with Reps. Jason Crow, D-Colo., and Troy Balderson, R-Ohio, as they established the Defense Workforce, Innovation, and Industry Caucus, also known as the DWIIC. The caucus serves as an open line of communication to lawmakers for issues such as supply chain resiliency, research and development, onshoring, cybersecurity, and any other challenges within the defense industrial base. NDIA will work with the caucus’ growing membership and develop a program of meetings and events to educate members and staff on DIB issues to include workforce challenges.

The DWIIC creates a defined legislative channel for Defense Workforce Project recommendations. NDIA understands that a whole-of-nation approach is needed to develop a defense labor force that can continue to effectively and efficiently provide the services and equipment that America’s warfighters need.

Many of the challenges and solutions discussed by the Defense Workforce Project and the caucus will also benefit the overarching American labor force. Early findings of the project highlight that a healthy future workforce cannot be pursued solely by one economic sector. We cannot focus on cutting a larger slice of the highly trained, highly educated talent pool pie for defense. We need to make the pie larger, supporting all sectors of tomorrow’s economy with the skilled, diverse labor force necessary for future national security and economic security.

For example, the STEM Education Pathways working group, comprised largely of educators, is examining factors limiting the number of K-14 students prepared for and interested in STEM fields. They have not focused on increasing the candidate pool for the defense industrial base, but instead are evaluating programs that will improve access to workers with STEM backgrounds across sectors. By embracing this approach, Defense Workforce Project recommendations will enhance all areas of American power and influence while also providing a greater incentive for all stakeholders to adopt and implement recommended solutions.

Other working groups will also provide recommendations for policy makers and executives across all levels of government — federal, state and local. For example, the Skilled Careers working group, tasked with addressing the decreasing number of welders, electricians, machinists and other qualified vocational workers, is focusing on studying existing programs, such as apprenticeships, that promote training for skilled careers, and building a list of the most successful for targeted scaling nationwide. Recommendations will include advice on how government at all levels can assist in encouraging and providing resources to young people to pursue these much-needed vocations.

This fall, each working group will present, discuss, and field questions on their interim findings at the inaugural NDIA Defense Workforce Summit. This summit will also serve as the launch of the second year of the program, allowing those continuing with the program to refine their scope and examine new recommendations over the course of 2022. We recognize the protracted nature of this initiative and built the Defense Workforce Project to provide analysis and policy recommendations for the short-, mid- and long-term.

We know we will not solve all impending labor force issues overnight. Our solutions will focus on generational impacts. We recognize we must act now if we want to equip workforce entrants in 2040 with the knowledge, skills, ability, education and training to tackle the unforeseen challenges they will face. NDIA, through its Defense Workforce Project and in collaboration with Congress and the Defense Department, plans to stand at the forefront of tackling labor force issues as we remain at the heart of the mission to protect and preserve our nation’s security.

Chris Sax is a strategy associate at NDIA.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Defense Innovation, Defense Department

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