The U.S. is not just in an arms race; it’s in an education race.
Behind every successful military is a highly educated and innovative government workforce. Unfortunately, we are lagging dangerously behind peer and near-peer competitors in the education of our uniformed and civilian Department of Defense (DoD) workforce and our ability to identify and promote talent.
The alarm bells are already ringing. The Council on Foreign Relations has identified workforce challenges and gaps in technology-related skills with the risk of falling behind both in great power competition and in countering sophisticated non-state and state-sponsored actors.
In addition, the unclassified version of the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released together last month, declared the need to reimagine how the DoD cultivates its workforce.
“People execute the strategy. To recruit and retain the most talented Americans, we must change our institutional culture and reform how we do business,” it said. It calls out specific areas of need and an emphasis on professional military education, along with working with colleges and universities and learning from the private sector through rotational programs.
The recommendations have promise, but they fail to address a major gap: they do not tie voluntary education of service members or use of the GI Bill (to pay for education) to specific workforce needs across the DoD enterprise, such as in the defense industrial base or the national security innovation base.
This is a missed opportunity, especially considering that the active and Reserve military represents an underutilized talent pool for both upskilled military and civilian positions. In an effort to build a better workforce, here are suggestions on an improved approach:
Artificial intelligence can provide a big assist: The DoD is rolling out new efforts to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to identify talent in the defense workforce. The Defense Innovation Unit has deployed a software tool called “GigEagle” to identify highly skilled service members — particularly, Reservists and National Guard members whose talents are often overlooked or undiscovered by DoD components or the defense industry. GigEagle is a promising tool that could be applied much more broadly.
Greater coordination with DoD education leaders: Working across the DoD enterprise, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force education and training should identify the workforce gaps and the education necessary to fill those gaps. The office should provide counseling through either education offices on individual military bases or through a centralized “virtual advising center” to prepare service members for careers in and following military service that meet those needs. Acting like college advising offices but for individual service members, advisors could identify high-demand education pathways leading to certificates, degrees, experiential education and other education, with the goal of a stronger, more agile DoD workforce.
Better use of the GI Bill education benefits: When a service member or former service member seeks to tap their education benefits, they should be presented with information about the most critical talent gaps. A focus of the benefits should include upskilling and educating to transition people to critical roles and retain them in meaningful careers in either uniformed or civilian DoD roles. Areas identified by the NDS and NPR include the need for expertise in “cyber, data and artificial intelligence specialization” and for the nuclear workforce, where the goal is “recruiting and retaining a skilled and diverse workforce…and conduct[ing] effective knowledge transfer.”
Sharpening professional military education. The education of military leaders should encourage them to understand how voluntary education and the use of the GI Bill fit into talent management, workforce development and a strong military. The approach should emphasize that high-quality education fills the need for skilled service members who advance DoD’s mission. This will serve their organizations well and prepare their personnel for future work post-military service that will contribute to our defense, strong communities and the strong economy necessary to support our national security.
U.S. military service members are largely an untapped resource. Some already have high-demand skills that can be employed in roles with current shortages or in civilian DoD roles following their military service. And many can be upskilled, trained and educated to fill those workforce needs. Simply put, we must ensure the best training and education opportunities for them that helps guarantee our national security.