Incoming: Defense Department Talent Challenges Demand New Approaches

February 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

One of the most pressing issues Defense Department leaders confront today is preparing its vast workforce for future challenges.

The military’s capacity to exert global influence, deter wars and, if necessary, fight and win conflicts in the future will depend on its ability to rapidly and smartly incorporate emerging technologies into day-to-day operations and decision-making. And doing that requires ready access to advanced skills, especially in information technology regarding cybersecurity, software development, data science and analytics, networking and intelligent automation architecting.

Today’s Defense Department civilian and military workforce is extremely talented and dedicated and can be counted on to surpass our expectations when called upon. However, the approaches employed today to recruit, manage, develop and task our military and civilian personnel increasingly are out of alignment with current trends ushered in by technology advancements and changing expectations in the workforce.

For example, automation is relieving workers of mundane tasks, freeing them to focus on more value-added work. Digitization is enabling organizations to track workers and their work, provide information access anywhere at any time and improve productivity and experimentation. Service platforms contribute to more agile workforces and customized work arrangements. And big data capabilities are empowering frontline employees to make better-informed decisions as a result of the democratization of data throughout organizations.

In today’s workplace, productivity is encouraged by giving people more input into when and where they work—hyper-connecting workers to their colleagues and teams to enable them to share unprecedented levels of information. It also gives them opportunities for extensive collaboration and continuous learning throughout their careers. All these workplace attributes enable the private sector workforce to maintain relevance and infuse creativity and agility, which is why they must also be available to the defense workforce as well.

Defense Department leaders, to their credit, are taking bold steps to re-examine recruitment and hiring practices, officer promotion systems, retention programs, training and education programs and more. Nevertheless, the department is facing steep challenges.

Consider that less than 1 percent of recruitment-age Americans are both eligible and interested in military service. The information technology talent shortage is large and growing. As of August 2017, there were almost 300,000 openings for cybersecurity-related jobs in the United States, and competition for that talent is intense.

Moreover, technology advancements are outpacing the ability of traditional education systems to update curriculums and produce employees with market-ready technology skills.

What does this all mean for the Defense Department? In short, it must excel at optimizing its existing talent resources. The department can accomplish this through four steps.

First, it must reimagine work. It must shift the mindset from workforce planning to work planning to streamline what gets done and how. The department also must automate mundane tasks, re-engineer business processes smartly and leverage intelligent automation where possible, so its talent resources can be more deliberately applied.

Second, the department must pivot the workforce from performing low-value work to high-value work. By employing data analytics and artificial intelligence to perform low-level analysis, we free-up the workforce to take on higher-value roles within the organization that require more evaluation.

The third step is reskilling, which prepares existing employees to transition to higher-value or higher-priority roles and responsibilities through tailored, continuous training and education programs that address the organization’s future needs.

Fourth is recruiting. Hiring decisions will continue to be critical; however, greater emphasis should be placed on a candidate’s potential to solve problems and continuously learn and adapt to new roles and less on possessing a narrow set of technical skills.

Other resources can help to shift the defense workforce. One avenue, known as preskilling, involves finding, recruiting and preparing future employee candidates further down the talent pipeline. One exciting example of this is the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, known as P-TECH, in which school districts, community colleges and the private sector collaborate to provide high school students with the skills, credentials and industry-specific associate degrees necessary for careers in cybersecurity. My employer has partnered with the San Antonio Independent School District and St. Philip’s College to launch the first P-TECH campus in San Antonio next school year, but similar P-TECH schools are proliferating around the country in at least eight states.

Finally, acquiring skills from the private sector will continue to be enormously important, especially for narrow skill sets—such as platform-specific expertise—that are not economical for the Defense Department to develop organically.

While improving military technology is critical, it’s clear that having the human talent to leverage that technology to its fullest potential is even more crucial to achieve mission success.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), leads the Accenture Federal Services Armed Forces portfolio. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the commanding general for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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