EMERGING TECHNOLOGY HORIZONS DEFENSE DEPARTMENT
Leveraging America's Diverse STEM Talent
The United States has enjoyed decades of defense technological superiority over its greatest rivals, but this gap has begun to close. While adversaries develop increasingly robust science and technology ecosystems, the United States faces an ongoing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, workforce shortage. The nation is unlikely to maintain its advantage without doing more to attract and retain the talent that underpins many of its greatest technological achievements.
The Defense Department and defense industrial base struggle with an aging workforce, worker shortages and talent competition with the commercial sector. This limits the number of skilled professionals available to work on defense projects, hindering the ability of the defense sector to recruit and retain top STEM talent.
Alarmingly, 82 percent of companies in the defense industrial base report that it is difficult to find qualified STEM workers. This reflects trends within the broader economy, where the STEM shortage is expected to reach 1.4 million people by 2030.
U.S. competitors, such as China, can produce more STEM graduates than the United States due to the sheer population difference and rapidly improving education programs. For example, the Center for Security and Emerging Technology projects that by 2025, Chinese universities will produce more than 77,000 STEM Ph.D. graduates per year compared to approximately 40,000 in the United States. If international students are excluded from the U.S. count, Chinese STEM Ph.D. graduates would outnumber their U.S. counterparts more than three to one.
To expand the pool of STEM talent, the department and industry must focus more on the identification, reduction and elimination of barriers to reaching pools of potential workers. Foreign-born talent and students from minority-serving institutions offer a highly skilled, eager and diverse technical workforce.
The ability to attract foreign-born talent is one of the nation’s greatest asymmetric advantages. In contrast, data show that adversarial countries such as Russia and China remain unpopular destinations for many of the world’s brightest minds.
Despite this advantage, existing legislation greatly limits the potential of high-skilled immigration by imposing stringent green card caps that have few exceptions for those who can immediately contribute to the security and prosperity of the United States. For example, Indian STEM graduates must often wait decades before receiving their green cards. Because of these restrictions, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of students receiving advanced degrees in highly desirable STEM fields are forced to leave the country after graduation, greatly depleting America’s potential workforce.
Nations around the world — adversary and ally alike — have already made efforts to absorb the talent that the United States is pushing away, including in critical areas such as 5G and microelectronics. This talent drain is untenable and poses a major obstacle to STEM workforce diversification. While there are understandable security concerns surrounding the employment of foreign-born workers in the defense industrial base, these concerns can be addressed through improved vetting and selection of STEM countries and candidates.
While international talent is a great resource, the full scope of domestic talent is also underleveraged. Minority institutions, which include historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities and Asian American and Pacific Islander-serving institutions, could dramatically improve the current STEM landscape.
Altogether, two- and four-year minority-serving institutions enroll 30 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S. higher education system and produce one-fifth of the STEM bachelor’s degrees.While the representation of these graduates within the Defense Department civilian STEM workforce has improved slightly in the last decade, there is much more room for engagement.
In May 2023, the Emerging Technologies Institute co-organized a workshop with NDIA’s Science and Engineering Technology Division and the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Air Force focused on strengthening Defense Department-industry-academia collaboration to increase engagement with minority-serving institutions. We heard that there is an opportunity to leverage more talent from technical schools and community colleges, especially for critical technology areas.
Also, recruitment and talent development efforts should be more culturally sensitive. Lastly, some barriers result from contract language, which restricts how companies approach hiring.
There are several actions that could be taken in the near-term to increase engagement with these institutions.
First, the industrial base should sponsor participation by faculty and students in appropriate technical conferences and scientific, technical and industry associations. Second, defense firms should create a working group consisting of companies who want to partner more with minority-serving institutions.
Lastly, the Defense Department should create a working group that consists of industry, government and academia representatives to continue discussing the identification and the elimination or alleviation of those barriers for STEM students enrolled at such institutions.
ETI recently published its findings from the May workshop, which identified barriers for students from these institutions and provided policy recommendations.
It is also currently working on a white paper to identify the pivotal role Hispanic institutions play in national security.
Strengthening the Defense Department and industrial base talent pool by recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented groups and foreign-born talent will require a multi-pronged, bipartisan solution.
ETI will continue to work on workforce issues by leveraging its government relationships as well as NDIA’s industry and academic members. ND
Wilson Miles and Jordan Chase are associate research fellows at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.