Mind the Millennial Training Gap

December 1, 2017
By Margaret S. Marangione

Preparing this generation of intelligence analysts requires a new approach.

As the need for new analysts continues to grow, the intelligence community is looking to add millennials, the largest generation in the U.S. work force. These young people—born between about 1980 and 2000—bring a new perspective, but teaching them the necessary skills for analysis must be done differently than it was in even the recent past. Their attitudes and thought processes are vastly different from their predecessors, requiring a new approach to intelligence training and education to make the best use of their abundant skills.

The way the intelligence education community provides coursework must be overhauled in the same way that the intelligence community had to be overhauled after 9/11. Just as the intelligence community cannot approach 21st-century issues with tools from the Cold War, it cannot teach millennials in classrooms designed in the 1950s.

Research on millennials’ learning and experiences and its effect on intelligence analyst training is relatively new. But how millennials affect jobs in intelligence analysis is rooted in the long-standing debate on whether analysis is a craft or a profession. The debate may have fueled these educational challenges.

The intelligence community has had many issues with both training and framework, and these began to be voiced in the 1990s by intelligence experts and were followed by a series of intelligence reforms after 9/11. The initial solution was the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which created the director of national intelligence as well as goals of information sharing and analytic standards, including intelligence community directives (ICDs) 203 and 610. These requirements have forced a critical evaluation of the foundational skills needed for intelligence analysts, the educational gaps, the ramifications of training in a new and evolving tradecraft paradigm, and recently, the implications of millennials as analysts.

Both directives spell out the hard and soft skills needed for 21st-century intelligence analysts. ICD 203 outlines core principles, assessment criteria and deliverables, with the goal of providing analytic rigor and personal integrity in analytic practice. ICD 610 captures the core competencies needed for GS-15 civilian employees. These groundbreaking directives come at a time when experts and agencies have expressed that post-9/11 U.S. analytical capabilities and human and technical procedures need to be repaired and replaced to respond to 21st-century threats. Meanwhile, the intelligence education community has been debating the role of training and education as well as the foundation of social science methodology in bridging the gap from graduate to government analyst. These issues emerge along with the rise of the millennial work force, which is different from those of the past in significant ways.

Data point to millennials’ weaknesses in hard and soft skills regardless of whether they have a four-year degree. Researchers at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, examined data from a test called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which measured key cognitive and workplace skills in people ages 16 to 65 in 22 countries. When the results were analyzed by age group and nationality, data showed that millennials in the United States fell short in the skills employers want the most: literacy, including the ability to follow simple instructions, practical math and problem solving in technology-rich environments, according to a 2015 ETS report.

In a report last year from PayScale in partnership with Future Workplace, 60 percent of managers polled indicated that millennials lacked critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 56 percent said they lacked attention to detail, and 44 percent said they lacked leadership skills. Furthermore, millennials view higher education as an expensive but economically necessary consumer good, not as a goal to attain, fueled by hard work and outstanding performance. Education is purchased for the purpose of opening well-paying occupational doors upon graduation, so they feel entitled to their degree for the cost of the credits.

Many millennials are not prepared for the academic rigors of college. They were subjected to rote memorization for standards of learning (SOL) tests and therefore are ill-equipped for college inquiry, meta-analysis and synthesis of information. They may resent the amount of reading, research, problem solving and writing that professors assign them and the standards to which they are held. Additionally, millennials are a generation marked by fragility. Those whose grades slip in college may feel their self-esteem threatened and may react with depression, anxiety, defensiveness and even anger. Some need “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” if their beliefs and value systems are questioned.

Because of their exposure to digital media and other cultural influences, they often do not respond to courses that are conventionally delivered in a classroom. Concurrent challenges are how to align coursework with the learning styles and needs of millennials.

The intelligence community must adapt the classroom experience to this generation and the next. Research suggests that millennials want real-world examples. They want problem solving, not theory—less lecture and more interactive classrooms. Part of the solution might be multidisciplinary instruction that taps millennials’ strengths, including the ability to work in teams, to quickly understand context, to find information online and to synthesize what they find into something new.

Many of these suggestions are time-consuming. “Flipping a classroom,” or converting it from passive to interactive learning, finding the right balance between providing new information and application, and keeping students interested is challenging when they are used to quick bites of information.

The ICD standards start to chip away at the challenges of rethinking coursework by identifying the skill base that must be established. All nine ICD 203 analytic tradecraft standards specifically outline a foundation in research and analysis, critical thinking, oral and written communication, and leadership. Most research and analysis courses provide basic coverage of these requirements. Courses also encompass analysis of competing hypotheses principles, risk assessments, probability and scenario analysis. To prepare students further, colleges and technical schools such as the Intelligence & Security Academy offer technical writing classes along with research methods and analysis. But even with these courses at their fingertips, students may not possess the basic intelligence analyst skill set when they graduate.

Educators and employers can support job preparedness by understanding these potential analysts, and that comes with knowing who they are. Some millennials are now in elected and staff positions in Congress and fill essential positions with contractors as well as jobs across all 17 intelligence agencies. They are on the receiving end of intelligence and are analyzing and driving its collection. And they fill the seats in intelligence classrooms.

Culturally, they have always lived with the threat of school violence, such as the Ohio State University knife attack and the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings. They have seen the worst of corporate greed in the Enron fraud scandal, watched the controversy of the Edward Snowden leaks and witnessed the divisive recent presidential election.

The current political environment has fortified their already shaky faith in the government and the political system. Only 20 percent of millennials said they trusted the federal government in 2014, and just 22 percent were sure that Snowden jeopardized national security, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The controversy over their personal experiences with SOL tests and the recent reality of student loan debt—around $30,000 per student—along with the challenge of finding gainful employment and the uncertainty that a degree brings success has millennials questioning the educational system.

The first fully digital generation, millennials grew up with the Internet. Social media has shaped not only who they are and their perspective but also what information they think of as timely and relevant. Use of social media and past cultural experiences also directly affect how millennials learn, including how they receive and process new information.

Mobile phones are the most important technological device in their lives. A survey of more than 2,000 adults by Harris Poll on behalf of the Webby Awards in 2015 revealed that 93 percent of millennials use their smartphone in bed, 79 percent in the restroom and 43 percent in the car while stopped at a red light. Because of their ability to adapt to technology, millennials want to share and discuss information and have an innate openness to change.

These are significant factors to consider for new training and educational course design. For college course development, initial buy-in and smooth onboarding is critical for millennials. Discussion about assessments, objectives and the value of learning tools can create shared understanding and possibly some agreement about skill-based validity and the importance of course goals. But it can be difficult to reconcile teaching to a generation that simply does not read.

This is not idle speculation. One millennial said about books and reading in a blog called The Next Great Generation: “Even if I had the money to buy every textbook I ever needed in college, most of them would have collected dust on my shelves all semester ... part of my complete disinterest in textbooks comes from the fact that the second a book is published today, it is pretty much obsolete.”

Another also blogged, “I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school consistently ranked as one of the best public universities in the country, and never checked out a single book.”

Whether material is online or in print, millennials do still read, but they read differently. They are good scanners because they are reading solely for “information bites.” In the book Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott describes a 22-year-old student leader who was on his way to study at Oxford. The student said, “I don’t read books per se. I go to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly. Some of this comes from books. But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web. You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter.”

Millennials’ habit of “reading with purpose” may be good news for the intelligence community because it is a skill needed for scanning the huge amount of open source intelligence. Keywords, Twitter trending topics and other tools provide gateways to relevant content. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that millennials can absorb a lot of visual information all at once—probably more than older generations—provided that it is presented in an attractive, easily digestible way.

This emerging generation of analysts also has much more experience with information technology and is more comfortable with networked environments and parallel processing of large amounts of information than any other generation in the work force. Millennials access data, share hypotheses, create “problemcentric” networks and communicate simultaneously with their friends in ways that will shape analysis in the future.

Many experts believe that the intelligence community will not attract these young people or will soon lose them if it does not accommodate how they think and learn. What is also clear from most experts is that opportunities abound to refashion methods, enhance critical thinking and reconfigure organizations for doing intelligence analysis.

This can apply to developing and shaping coursework that will build on millennials’ inherent strengths while providing a solid foundation in critical thinking. It does not mean doing away with lectures and reading, soft skill development and excellent writing skills. What it does mean is that if intelligence education training is going to be effective, it must engage the millennial brain.


Margaret S. Marangione, who teaches writing and competitive intelligence analysis for Blue Ridge Community College, Weyers Cave, Virginia, and James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a research analyst for Syntelligent Analytic Solutions LLC.

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