Defense Sector Straining To Attract STEM Talent.

Author:Tadjdeh, Yasmin

* For years, experts and military officials have been sounding the alarm across the defense industry: More STEM--or science, technology, engineering and mathematics--talent is needed to meet the challenges of a volatile and uncertain future.

But despite these cautions, industry and government are still struggling to attract STEM students, particularly as they face steep competition from deep-pocketed commercial companies in places such as Silicon Valley. That could have dire consequences in a potential future fight with great power competitors.

In the National Defense Industrial Association's new report, "Vital Signs 2020:The Declining Health and Readiness of the Defense Industrial Base," defense industry production "inputs" did poorly, scoring 67, or a D grade. That category includes skilled labor, intermediate goods and services, and raw materials used to manufacture or develop end-products and services for Defense Department consumption.

Relatively low 2019 index scores for defense industry workforce size helped drive the low score for this dimension. The estimate of the size of the workforce, currently about 1.1 million, falls substantially below its mid-1980s peak size of 3.2 million, resulting in an index score of 34. (See story on page 22)

Another recently released report, "The Contest for Innovation: Strengthening America's National Security Innovation Base in an Era of Strategic Competition," by the Ronald Reagan Institute's Task Force on 21st Century National Security Technology and Workforce, found that the U.S. government is straining to hire enough people with the proper STEM skills.

In one category, engineering, it found that the government is failing to attract and retain computer engineers and skilled software developers, as well as cultivating such talent internally. "The effect is a brain drain that is working against our national interest--the opposite of the one we benefited from in the 20th century," the report said.

U.S. universities are also having problems building and maintaining the talent pipeline needed for what the report calls the "national security industrial base." Schools rely on foreign students--many of whom are Chinese--to fill its graduate-level engineering programs, the report said. Around 80 percent of graduate students in technical fields are foreign nationals.

"This talent gap is partially due to the fact that private-sector companies attract American students graduating from bachelor's programs with lucrative salaries and immediate offers of employment following graduation, causing them to forgo graduate degrees," the report said.

Compounding the "war for talent" are U.S. immigration policies that often require foreign students graduating with technical degrees to return home instead of contributing to the U.S. national security industrial base, the study noted.

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