Talent Gap Looming Larger

Talent Gap Concerns Loom Larger Than Ever

November 2016 

By Sandra I. Erwin

An innovation deficit in the Defense Department and the weapons-making industry has been a central focus of Pentagon chief Ashton Carter’s agenda.

The topic for the most part has been treated as a footnote in the larger debate about national security priorities. Discussions on aging workforces and skills gaps frequently induce eye rolling inside the Washington Beltway and fall into the category of “problems that need to be solved” after we deal with more pressing concerns, like shooting wars, terrorism and budget sequestration.

Carter’s push to reach out to millennials and tech startups around the country has been viewed with some skepticism, as an academic exercise that stands little chance against the Pentagon’s entrenched culture and aversion to change.

During visits to military posts and forward bases, Carter likes to remind audiences that the United States has the best and most technologically advanced military in the world. He also argues frequently that the failure to attract fresh talent — both in the government and the defense industry — will eventually erode the competitive advantage the U.S. military currently has.

“One of my core goals as secretary of defense has been to push the Pentagon to think outside this wonderful five-sided box, and be more open to new ideas and new partnerships that can help our military remain what it is today — the finest fighting force the world has ever known — as we confront a changing and fiercely competitive world,” Carter said at the inaugural meeting of the Defense Innovation Board, a group of prominent tech executives and academic advisers he brought in to infuse new perspectives.

Whereas the tech industry was once embedded in the defense establishment, they now live in separate worlds, which is worrisome to those who, like Carter, fear that the Pentagon has created an inhospitable environment for innovators and creative thinkers. “The world of technology is changing too fast,” he said. “You’ll fall behind and people won’t want to work with you because they’re not going to work with people who fall behind.”

And oh by the way, the defense industry is in the same boat. Carter has warned Pentagon contractors that they are just as challenged in this area as the government. He has been frustrated by the defense industry’s response to his outreach efforts — turning the debate into a turf battle between “traditional vs. nontraditional” contractors instead of joining forces with the Pentagon in the pursuit of new talent.

Carter’s innovation initiative has been further sidetracked by the overwhelming focus on technology, instead of people. The industry talks about innovation in terms of research-and-development programs, and is not investing the resources Carter would have liked to see to recruit the next generation of researchers and engineers who can actually develop cutting-edge technology.

Growing concerns about the Defense Department’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities are drawing fresh attention to the skills gap issue, transforming it from an academic exercise to an urgent crisis that demands action.

U.S. defense officials are becoming alarmed by Russia’s information-warfare maneuvers, and by the hacking prowess of several other countries, and are scrambling to figure out how to respond and stay ahead of the threat.

Unlike past military rebuilding cycles in which the Pentagon would stock up on new hardware, skills shortfalls in cyber and electronic warfare can’t be filled with expensive equipment or money alone. Reality has set in that the usual approaches to training and preparing forces for future wars are not enough.

“We need people who can help protect our networks and build offensive capabilities,” said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. “We need people who can understand complex networks, who have analytical skills, who can combine technological big data skills with contextual knowledge of societies, cultures and political dynamics.”

Experts worry that the military, despite its best intentions, gets in its own way when it comes to recruiting young talent. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a military analyst at the Atlantic Council, suggested that the Army needs a fundamental cultural shift so it can attract and retain leaders for this complex new world. The military has to accept more risk, decrease tolerance of bureaucracy, reduce excessive deference to rank and position and reject Army anti-intellectualism, Barno observed.

“When we talk about the future of the Army, it’s not about technology,” he said at an Atlantic Council forum. “We’re trying to use tech to make humans more effective. The battlefield is changing but the Army is not keeping up.”

The Air Force, where high-tech weaponry features much more prominently than in the Army, also faces people-related struggles. In his first address to the Air Force Association’s annual meeting and technology expo, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein declared his paramount goal is to revitalize combat squadrons, without mentioning a single weapon system. He sees it as an imperative to build a new generation of leaders who can take on the complex challenges of fighting in a data-driven battlefield.

The cultural shakeup that Carter may have envisioned to help attract the next generation of innovators is not going to happen any time soon. The Defense Innovation Board is hoping to get the ball rolling. The group, chaired by Google’s parent company chief Eric Schmidt, will recommend that the Pentagon establish a “digital ROTC” program, or a career track for computer science. The Defense Department, the panel said, will have to take concrete steps such as offering bonuses, recognition, awards and other incentives for managers who promote innovation, give employees greater voice and encourage creativity and divergent views.

Defense watchers expect Carter’s efforts to continue in the next administration although it is doubtful that any future secretary will match Carter’s level of attention to this issue.

Sandra Erwin, Talent Gap Concerns Loom Larger Than Ever, National Defense Magazine, November 2016