Overlapping strategies and entrenched practices may be hindering the U.S. Department of Defense in its bid to recruit a technologically savvy workforce on the battlefield and in the Pentagon, according to military and civilian leaders.

There is no unified, department-wide approach to building digital career pathways for civilian and uniformed personnel, the leaders said in interviews conducted by Mitre, a nonprofit research group, and the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a policy organization associated with Georgetown University.

Across the DoD, digital talent career fields and experience identifiers lack common criteria and are inconsistently applied, creating missed opportunities, the researchers concluded in a Oct. 25 report. Recruitment is also at risk of being undermined by attrition, which is driven by gaps in mentorship, limited trust of junior talent to innovate, risk-averse leaders, and old technology that stymies even simple digital projects, the report said.

“I also lost my mentors when moved to working in tech,” another said. “My mentors who were supposed to help me have shifted to sponsor or encourager. They love what I’m doing, but don’t know how to guide, lead or give advice. I haven’t had a new mentor in three years.”

Like other agencies, the DoD has been pushing to fill vacancies in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, IT and data analytics while contending with fierce competition in the talent market.

That’s been difficult because the hiring process is slowed by bureaucracy, though workforce leaders have said it’s critical there are experts within government who can oversee complicated tech projects, write clear requirements and call out contractors who overhype product or service capabilities.

“We lose more people with technical talent when they show up in a command and the command has no idea how to use them,” said one official interviewed in the report. “We conducted surveys on retention and [determined that] people stayed not because of money, but because of the quality of work.”

For the civilian workforce, the Pentagon said it’s working on defining career paths for AI and data professionals because there hasn’t been positions coded specifically for them. And for cyber positions, the department aims to get vacancy rates below 15% by 2027, according to its July Cyber Workforce Strategy. That strategy also called for unity and coordination across components.

Getting to those endpoints will require leaders to firm up their understanding of what specific skills to hunt for. The report noted that common terms such as “data,” “digital,” and “AI” are being used interchangeably, which can create confusion for offices trying to set a baseline for tech fluency or contract out work.

Military challenges

The military, too, which employs a combined 1.4 million active personnel, is trying to bolster its tech talent.

“The uniformed services realize that cyber is its own distinct warfighting domain, just like the land, sea, or air, where either nation-states or terrorist actors can target our country,” DoD leaders wrote in the November 2020 Joint Force Quarterly.

Each service is tackling that independently using existing processes and organizational cultures, the report found.

“While it is a service-level responsibility to man, train, and equip the workforce, it nonetheless creates challenges to assess DOD digital force posture and its impact on mission effectiveness,” according to the findings. “It also results in each service having different levels of maturity in their readiness, which in turn could make joint and interoperable technology and missions more challenging.”

Some efforts by the services to build out designated career fields for AI have been delayed. The report said the Marine Corps’ plans for that have been on pause for two years.

Even civilian offices have been slow to use the Office of Personnel Management’s new data science occupational series. They still use existing position descriptions that added “creative tagging or hashtags for positions specific to data, analytics, and AI.”

To leverage direct-hiring authorities, one office said it put together a hiring authority kit that includes all the legal powers an agency has and practical methods for using them the right way.

More than 25 uniformed and civilian personnel were interviewed across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force, and Coast Guard for the report between October and December of 2022.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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