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Friday, August 29, 2014

Defense Department Struggles with STEM Problems

The Department of Defense (DOD) faces major hurdles in recruiting and retaining top quality high-tech professionals unless it addresses science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education deficits, according to a new report from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and National Research Council (NRC).

The report addresses growing concern among national educators, employment experts and defense stakeholders about America’s STEM capabilities falling behind the rest of the world.

STEM education is widely regarded as the key to producing a competitive workforce for high-tech industries, such as engineering, computer science and aerospace. Many experts and politicians, including President Barack Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address, draw a parallel with the need for STEM education today with the United States’ experience during the Cold War.

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon,” the president said in a section of the speech focused on the importance of science and technology. “The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.”

However, the nation’s STEM performance has so far failed to meet these goals.

A 2010 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study rated the U.S. 23rd in math education, 17th in reading education and 31st in science education worldwide. China, represented by the city of Shanghai and the administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, was ranked toward the top of the list in these categories.

The NAE and NRC last year launched a study to “assess the STEM capabilities that the DOD will need in order to meet its goals, objectives and priorities; to assess whether the current DOD workforce and strategy will meet those needs; and to identify and evaluate options and recommend strategies that the department could use to help meet its future STEM needs,” Today’s Engineer notes.

The study’s interim findings paint a grim portrait of the DOD’s STEM capabilities, similar to the ongoing manufacturing skills gap.

First, the U.S. defense industry has an aging workforce. While many skilled workers are headed toward retirement, fewer numbers of young people are being trained to replace them.

Almost half of current DOD engineers, physical sciences, IT and biological sciences employees with at least 20 years of experience are near retirement age.

Much of the shortfall is due to weakened performance in K-12 STEM education in the U.S.  Shortages are also widening in higher education: U.S. universities are conferring more than half of the doctoral degrees in engineering to non-U.S. citizens, “a large percentage of whom leave the country within five years of getting their degrees.”

Furthermore, non-U.S. citizens often have difficulty getting DOD jobs because of security clearance issues.

In a later report, the NAE and NRC point out that public jobs are simply not attractive to STEM professionals, many of whom are able to find more lucrative opportunities, with fewer bureaucratic demands, in the private sector.

“STEM assignments at the DOD that involve more procedure and bureaucracy than technical challenge and mission are unlikely to satisfy the high-quality STEM professionals the DOD needs to recruit,” C.D. Mote, engineering professor at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “Making DOD employment an attractive career choice to the most qualified and motivated professionals will pay enormous dividends to the department and the nation.”

According to the report, the DOD should:

  • Educate capable employees in STEM fields through advanced degree programs, such as those at the Naval Postgraduate School
  • Re-evaluate security clearance procedures to admit larger numbers of STEM-qualified non-citizens
  • Work to change the H-1B visa system to allow individuals with cybersecurity training to work with the DOD
  • Improve the SMART scholarship program

The DOD is currently conducting an internal evaluation of the report to determine which of these recommendations are actionable and should be pursued.

Brian Lane


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