The Biden administration has placed a high priority on hiring top STEM talent in the U.S.

The Biden administration has placed a high priority on hiring top STEM talent in the U.S. tadamichi/Getty Images

How to Reinvigorate the National Security Community One Young Worker at a Time

The national security community needs to reevaluate some basic features of public service that are turning young workers away from government work.

At a conference several months ago, I was sitting in a conversation about talent management when the speaker, in all seriousness, asked the group, “So what if my best employee doesn’t make enough money to afford his own place? Why can’t we have more patriotic Americans like him who are willing to work for the government and live in their parents’ basement?” I was appalled, but unfortunately this is a sentiment I’ve heard far too often even from senior leaders in the Department of Defense. Increasingly, this sentiment reflects the dearth of young, civilian, Millennial and Gen Z workers entering national security jobs both in federal service and private industry supporting government. 

In fact, there are more unfilled jobs now than there have ever been since the statistic was first tracked. The lack of workers isn’t because young workers are uninterested in getting a job. For instance, it’s estimated 48% of workers age 24 or younger are considering quitting their jobs this year to switch jobs, not to leave the workforce. This may appear to be a daunting statistic, but it presents a significant opportunity for the national security establishment to acquire top tech talent.  

DoD and the Biden administration have placed a high priority on hiring top STEM talent in the U.S. to fill a significant number of these jobs, but many of the positions still remain empty, and not for lack of people with STEM degrees. Recent initiatives like the CHIPS Act are a step in the right direction toward cultivating and employing more STEM talent, particularly young Millennial and Gen Z talent. Yet underlying issues preventing many more Americans from entering civilian public service in national security—STEM and beyond—remain under-addressed. 

If the United States is truly serious about competing with peer and near-peer competitors by developing superior technology, the national security community needs to reevaluate some basic features of public service that are turning young workers away from government work and to the private sector or industries outside national security altogether. 

The Revolving Door Gets Stuck

Fifteen to 20 years ago, the mindset about work was very different than today. While it used to be the norm to stay at one company or in one job for 20 years and receive a gold watch or pension at the end, that trend is rapidly vanishing. As a result, government hiring is taking a toll. The typical employee outside of government averages slightly more than four years at one job before moving on, less than half the average tenure of federal employees today. Gen Z workers only amplify this trend and spend a year less than their millennial colleagues at each job before making a switch. 

Frequent job-hopping means corporations are embracing hiring strategies more similar to revolving doors than long-term commitments to prevent job stability from turning into career stagnation. 

But government hiring has been slow to catch up with the revolving door approach, often touting the stability of government work as a perk when Gen Z and millennial workers view the same prospect as a drawback if stability comes without meaningful career progression. Furthermore, most national security jobs are concentrated in the Washington, D.C. area or around major military bases. For Millennial and Gen Z workers that don’t want to live in either of those locations for extended periods of time, finding a job in national security today that fits their interests is difficult, to say the least, before taking preferred location into account.

The third stumbling block to hiring STEM talent into federal government and successfully creating a revolving door is the security clearance system. Unlike large tech companies such as Apple, the federal government doesn’t have the luxury of bringing in large numbers of workers on visas, because security classification often prevents non-U.S. citizens from accessing it. As a result, the potential number of qualified STEM graduates is sharply reduced to U.S. citizens that are willing to work in government for long periods of time. While it is possible to return to government work and obtain a clearance after a stint in non-national security jobs, the barriers to gain clearance once more can significantly prolong the hiring process and make the transition back to government unnecessarily burdensome. 

Opening the Door Again

Fighting the trends of frequent job switches and increased flexibility for workers isn’t a productive endeavor, but there are other ways the government can work with these trends and alter its policies to make public service more amenable to the brightest STEM talent coming out of U.S. universities. Overall, the answer lies in creating incentives that attract workers of all ages. The ability to telework while doing strictly unclassified work for all offices, not just some offices in some agencies could help attract younger workers looking to prioritize their work-life balance, or simply workers who appreciate a periodic change in scenery. Doing classified work at home will likely never be a reality, but allowing for some periods of unclassified work may provide a bit of the flexibility younger workers are looking for. Additionally, an increase in rotational programs for STEM talent, along the lines of the Presidential Management Fellows and the U.S. Digital Corps program can also provide opportunities for more workers in national security to gain a diverse set of experiences that would otherwise only happen with a job change.   

Next, it’s time to be proactive about recruiting young talent. With 1/3 of the government workforce reaching federal retirement age in the next two years, it will quickly become imperative to hire new talent into these positions to keep the national security establishment running. A significant part of this challenge will be building connections to civilian universities and raising awareness about the diversity of careers within national security. National security isn’t for armed service members and veterans only, there are roles for everyone from data scientists to international relations majors to engineers. Broadening awareness about the wide variety of careers within national security can help college students see a career that fits their passions early, rather than getting several years into their respective careers and asking “Oh, you can actually do that for the Department of Defense?” There is no shortage of young workers that have interests in high-demand job fields within national security, but those same workers can’t apply for those jobs if they don’t know they exist in the first place.  

Being more proactive about attending both high school and university job fairs and events is a great way to expose students to the wide variety of jobs available in the federal government. One office alone within massive agencies like Defense or the Department of Homeland Security can’t adequately represent all available job pathways within the entire organization. But overcoming the mindset that only one office from a federal agency can be present at the same job fair is a first step. Having multiple offices within a large agency at the same job fair isn’t necessarily competing for talent to a detriment, but allowing young workers to find the optimal job to match their interests within an agency. 

Toward a More Balanced Defense Workforce

During Deputy Secretary of Defense Katherine Hicks’ remarks at the 2022 SCSP AI Summit, she commented on the changing hiring environment in the defense sector. 

“Are things better now than they were five years ago? Absolutely. Is there more to be done? Absolutely,” Hicks said. 

She is absolutely correct. U.S. national security, and the United States as a whole, will be better off if it embraces the incremental changes to make public service a more desirable profession for Millennial and Gen Z workers. The COVID-19 pandemic did force some offices within the Pentagon and across the entire bureaucracy to embrace flexibility and new incentives for young workers. Each change may be small, but might have an outsized impact on America’s ability to make the next big technological discovery. 

Regan Copple works at the intersection of analysis and policy, and currently focuses on technical analysis at Group W. Previously, she focused on policy issues while working at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Copple holds a Master of Security Studies from Georgetown University.