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The challenge of attracting young talent to the Department of Defense.

The world of government employment has been in turmoil, to say the least, since the Great Recession of2008-09, when the Obama Administration entered office. Employment in the Department of Defense has been even more volatile with the onset of sequestration in 2011. Add to this the "graying" of the labor force in Government with pending retirements of baby boomers, sending alarms through agencies with the loss of human resources.

What then is the solution to maintaining sufficient resources for DOD? Take off the shackles of sequestration and step up recruiting efforts. This is needed to maintain force limits with active duty military and replace retiring workers with a younger generation. Unfortunately, if the experience of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Education's Office of Mathematics and Governor's Schools is an indication, then government, including the military, will experience a failure to attract exceptional talent. As our colleague, Sandra Erwin of National Defense magazine noted in a recent article, "One hundred high-school academic superstars in the Hampton Virginia area were asked if any of them would consider a career at the Newport News naval shipyard or saw themselves pursuing any career related to the military. Not a single hand went up!" (1)


These high achievers, noted Erwin, had worked on NASA projects at Wallops Island and other engineering and medical research. These students accomplished a great deal in the NASA program. The coordinator of the program, Donna Poland, was "horrified when not a single student seemed even remotely enthusiastic about defense oriented careers."

Warnings have been loud and clear from DOD leadership including outgoing Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, a Ph.D. and accomplished scientist who had launched "force of the future" personnel reforms and talent management efforts. His tenure as SecDef was short, leaving after a couple of years in office during the transition with the Trump administration. DOD can learn from the NASA program, with an emphasis on high schools and universities that guide students into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) studies and careers. Poland stated, "...the defense industry is in denial about its capacity and lack of strategy to recruit talent in STEM fields."

The ever present misperception by young people that a career in the Department of Defense means joining the military continues for many. Associations like NDTA, as well as the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), have sought to encourage university students to consider civilian careers in DOD. The NDTA Washington, DC chapter, like other chapters, has an annual Scholarship Auction to raise funds for scholarships at the undergraduate and graduate levels for those studying transportation and logistics. NDTA headquarters also offers scholarships (please go online at for information). These programs are meant to not only encourage the study of transportation and logistics, but also to incentivize students to consider defense careers.

The NDIA also offers university students complimentary registration to its annual Logistics Division conference. Young civilians embarking on careers in defense are also guided to this program. Industry or government mentors are assigned to these students. NDIA has had measurable success with these students' experiences including being aggressively recruited by defense contractors. DOD representatives at these meetings have not been as successful in attracting these students. Explanations could be a perceived lack of a recruitment strategy, as well as cost pressures to downsize the military. NDTA has had some outreach to students at the 2016 Fall Meeting primarily with universities who were exhibiting at NDTA.

NASA has been far more adept in reaching out to these high schoolers, states Erwin and Poland who were "... really impressed with how NASA made sure their grants and educational research are happening at the K-12 level. NASA outreach begins in kindergarten with coloring books and continues all the way to internships in high school. They mentor, they expose students to opportunities. That makes a difference."

Many students aren't aware of the world of defense contractors unless family members work there. When there is zero exposure within an industry, it's unlikely that these young people will have the opportunity to aspire for these careers. The image of government may just be too stodgy or difficult to enter to attract them. Perhaps misconceptions about the lack of technology within the DOD world may also hurt the defense industry. How does DOD and its contractors compete with careers at Amazon, Uber or Facebook?


This is not to say there has not been success in attracting any talent to defense contractors. Lockheed Martin, states Erwin, has won numerous awards for its educational initiatives. Executives at the nation's biggest contractor acknowledge that young people are attracted to Lockheed, but to divisions that are unrelated to weapons such as space exploration, geolocation technology, renewable energy and more.

While STEM programs have had success, it has not been nearly enough to attract more US citizens. Lockheed by itself hires some five percent of the entire US born engineering graduates. The opportunities for non-US born graduates of US university engineering programs has been in decline as Homeland Security priorities and immigration constraints have greatly reduced the ability of such students to stay after graduation and work in the US, especially in the defense industry. Thus US universities are training these engineering students for work needed by the nation, but who leave to seek to work outside the US, perhaps with firms competing with US-based firms.

What are the options available to the defense industry? Reach out to the K-12 students. Reach out to university students. Reduce the complexity of government hiring. Sponsor DOD-related research. Work with DHS and Congress on keeping foreign born STEM students in the US. Certainly security and clearance considerations play a role in such hiring, but losing young people to non-defense careers has a negative impact on defense.

Do you have a success story recruiting young, emerging professionals to government or defense contracting? Please share them with the author,

Irvin Varkonyi, President, SCOPE Consulting

(1) Erwin, S. I. (2017, February). Defense Industry at Risk of Losing the Future. National Defense, p. 6.
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Author:Varkonyi, Irvin
Publication:Defense Transportation Journal
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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