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

Author:Varkonyi, Irvin

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...

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