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New Brief: How To Get More STEM Talent into the DoD

December 2, 2020


Washington, D.C. - The Pallas Foundation for National Security Leadership is excited to announce the publication of a new brief from the Center for Strategic and International Studies which outlines how the defense enterprise can identify and address retention barriers for STEM talent in the DoD and recommends a pathway toward an enterprise approach to STEM talent management. The Pallas Foundation is proud to support the important research in this brief, alongside Rebellion Defense and Yubico, Inc.


Science, engineering, and innovation have long been a valued component of the U.S. defense enterprise. Yet despite the critical role that technical talent plays in national security, U.S. defense organizations have recently been challenged to retain and leverage the talents of their experts. This presents a mission-critical problem for national security: the technical skills and expertise of STEM talent are greatly needed to foster innovation in the sector and better protect against threats to global security.


The brief points to issues that plague retention of top STEM talent, including onboarding challenges, barriers to leveraging talent, and missed opportunities for their development and promotion.


One challenge is a lengthy and opaque onboarding process, particularly in comparison to the private sector. A months-long hiring timeline and lack of transparency causes STEM professionals to jump ship from the defense enterprise before they are even fully brought on board. Job descriptions that lack detailed technical specifications add to the confusion: STEM professionals are often assigned roles where they are unable to leverage their capabilities or where their skills are not a good fit. Onerous processes to acquire new equipment also means that STEM talent frequently do not have access to basic tools that they need for their roles, which builds frustration over time.


Broadly, STEM talent also has limited opportunities for development and promotion within the defense enterprise. In the absence of a technical champion, promotion boards favor operational and management experience over technical skills when comparing candidates. Interviewees reported that STEM professionals were pigeonholed as overly technical or too specialized for STEM-adjacent positions, such as those in technology management, budgets, or policy. In addition, formal training programs for STEM professionals are scarce.


To address these barriers, the authors developed recommendations, including:


  • Collect more data to assess the current state of STEM talent recruitment and retention.

  • Define requirements for STEM talent across the defense ecosystem.

  • Include STEM professionals in the recruitment process.

  • Upskill the existing workforce and offer continued opportunities for training.

  • Flatten technical hierarchies.

  • Prioritize STEM talent and literacy in defense enterprise leaders.

  • Pool and centrally manage STEM talent.

  • Integrate STEM and non-STEM professionals on the same teams.

  • Encourage permeability across the defense ecosystem.


To read more of the team’s analysis and details on their recommendations, check out the brief here.




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