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Defense Board to Pitch Solutions for Closing Tech Talent Gaps

Defense Innovation Board members cite need to modernize people management the same way government modernizes technology.

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The Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza/Defense Department

The Defense Innovation Board said the Pentagon needs to create career tracks, develop skills for human-technology teaming and offer competitive compensation to modernize the national security workforce for better technology adoption, board members said at the group’s April 17 public meeting.

In the meeting, members briefed progress in its study addressing workforce policies at DOD to drive faster technological adoption. Army Recruiting Command Chief of Innovation Col. Kristin Saling cited issues she sees at the department with recruiting and training.

“We don’t adequately recognize or cultivate nontraditional career paths and skills, which are becoming more and more essential as warfare and defense technologies evolve,” said Saling. She highlighted that failure to promote people with diverse, valuable skill sets makes it difficult to attract and retain these employees.

Saling currently is leading an Innovation Directorate that the Army is standing up under its Army Recruiting Command. She previously led a similar effort at the Army Human Resources Command.

“We are promoting people who go out and get diverse skills who have other nontraditional opportunities in spite of these opportunities rather than because of them,” Saling said. “We need to be able to leverage and reward unique contributions of our technologists, particularly looking at our civilian experts and our reservists, whose expertise can be absolutely pivotal on these times.”

Former U.S. Cyber Commander Gen. Paul Nakasone cited successes he saw in the National Security Agency’s Director’s Summer Program, a research program bringing in college math students to work on high-profile projects, and called for expanding it across DOD.

“One of the things that has led me to really consider is: how do we attract Gen Z?” Nakasone said at the meeting. “One of the things that most people told me is that they wanted to be part of the Director’s Summer Program. And so, as I thought about it, why don’t we have a secretary summer program, or a chief naval operations summer program, or chief of staff in the Army summer program?”

Other potential solutions include creating additional skill-based pay systems and “multiple career tracks that allow for lateral movement between disciplines and reward cross-functional skills and expertise.”

These approaches would “not just reward the capability of our individuals, but let us increase readiness by not having to stick strictly along cohort and career boundaries,” said Saling. They would also allow DOD to “attract and incentivize talent with increased variety and diversity of experience, finding better fit for new emerging requirements.”

DOD also wants to introduce project and performance-based bonuses for contributors to major projects that “reflect the impact and success of these initiatives,” said Saling.

Technology, according to Saling, can play a pivotal role in workforce management and matching human talent with emerging tech like artificial intelligence.

“What I’m proposing … is that we establish centers of excellence for people and talent that look at modernizing the capability of our individuals the same way that we modernize our systems,” Saling said. “[We need to start] thinking about what we need to have in order to assess, develop and even identify the attributes that make someone a good partner with a machine partner. How do we optimize our capabilities and our attributes for human machine-teaming … looking at generative AI all the way to autonomous vehicles?”

Innovating Through International Partnerships

Another study aims to explore how DOD innovates through partnerships with internal stakeholders, international allies and industry professionals.

Export controls make technology-sharing from the U.S. difficult to collaborate effectively. These restrictions run the risk of “losing access to allied and partner innovation and production capability,” said Sander Oude Hengel, the Netherlands Embassy’s defense cooperation attache.

Space Systems Command Senior Enlisted Leader Chief Master Sgt. Ron Lerch added that international cooperation strategies need to keep up with changes in technological advances.

“The system was developed in the ’70s at the time; the U.S. was responsible for the vast majority of global research and development spending worldwide. However, ever since, other countries, including U.S. allies and partners, have recognized the importance of [research and development] to the industrial innovation and competitiveness,” Lerch said. “The vast increases in the investments by other governments and industries since the ’70s has eroded the U.S. technological dominance.”

Board members are next scheduled to meet in public in July, when they will present their final recommendations.

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