Energetics Workforce Is Graying Out

By Sean Carberry

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This is Part Two of a two-part series on the energetics industrial base.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Whether it is cyber, microelectronics or another technology field, one of the most pressing concerns among government and industry is developing the future workforce. Nowhere is that challenge greater than in the field of energetic materials — the chemicals used to make propellants, pyrotechnics and explosives.

“This is not the bright, shiny ball area. It’s not really a growing area,” said Tom Russell, president of Defense Science and Technology Consultants, during the 2022 Breakthrough Energetics Conference held at Purdue University and organized by the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

There are several obstacles to attracting new workers into the energetics field: the constriction of the industry in recent decades, the lack of a commercial market for energetic materials, inconsistent government investment and the wide range of workers needed, Russel noted.

“The disciplines are everything from mechanical sciences to electrical engineering to chemistry … physical sciences, it’s really a very diverse community,” Russell said.

“Energetics and Lethality: The Imperative to Reshape the U.S. Military Kill Chain,” a 2021 report by the event cosponsor, the Energetics Technology Center, identified the workforce as a vulnerability.

“Research in [energetic materials-related] chemistry and chemical engineering suffers from generational attrition (together with insufficient replacement hiring), competition from more lucrative technical fields and the minimalization of [science, technology, engineering and math] at all levels of American education,” the report stated.

While compensation is one of the factors that deters potential candidates, there are bigger impediments, according to the report. Professionals “are motivated by mission and a drive to solve hard problems.

“Consequently, they leave the defense enterprise if they lack the necessary skills, tools and opportunities to solve problems in support of defense missions, and because investment in the [energetic materials] field barely maintains current workforce capabilities, to say nothing of building new ones,” the report continued.

Panelists identified other factors that turn candidates away from the energetics industry such as outdated facilities, excessive bureaucracy — even in small tasks like purchasing needed materials — and jobs located in areas with little to offer young professionals and their families.

The other side of that coin is the mismatch between what young people are studying and the skills required in energetics.

“I just reviewed a recent study that was done in the Delaware Valley,” said Mary Ann Pacelli, division chief, network learning and strategic competitions at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. “They have a whole lot of people graduating from community colleges and four-year institutions in degrees that the companies in that region don’t need.”

Solving the problem requires a mix of short-term and long-term approaches, said panelists. The NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers are working on mapping industry workforce needs and educational supply, said Pacelli.

“How do we start really generating more interest in the K-12 system to make sure that students understand why they need to stay in science and technology?” she asked, adding that students need to be made aware of the potential job market for science and technology.

At higher levels, educational institutions need to look at ways to provide specialized skills more quickly, said Pacelli. “How do I meet that need now without giving someone a full four-year degree? … They may not need the full four-year degree. They just need two or three courses or a certificate.”

Panelists noted that the Defense Department’s Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship program is an effective tool for funding STEM education, but it isn’t getting enough attention.

“I think we, again, have to do a better job of continuing to beat the drum with the SMART program and providing that general awareness,” said Tony Denhart, executive vice president, workforce and talent at the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

“We understood that there was a huge gap in our communication strategy associated with all of our programs,” said Jagadeesh Pamulapati, director of the defense laboratories office in the office of assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.

The Defense Department has many internships, scholarships and fellowships, but they are spread across the department. The department created a site, to serve as a central portal for candidates to find opportunities, he said.

Pacelli added:. “We need to do a better job of … collaborating and coordinating our funding. But the awareness — it’s an advertising campaign and … it’s a consistent message that has to get out there.”

Part 1: Community Warns of China’s Edge Developing Explosive Materials

Topics: Defense Department

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