Report: Military Engineer Shortage Could Threaten Security

A STEM shortage could create an employment crunch at the Department of Defense.

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The United States military could be hurt by a lack of workers with science, technology, education, and math—or STEM—degrees, according to a newly-released report by the National Academy of Sciences.

With more than 100,000 American employees considered "scientists" or "engineers," the Department of Defense is one of America's largest employers of STEM workers. Budget cuts, a graying workforce, and a shortage of security-cleared individuals could spell big problems for the military going forward.

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"We're in the bullets, bombs, and guns business, but that's just a piece of what the big mission is," says Laura Adolfie, head of STEM Development at the Department of Defense's office of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. "We have scientists and engineers across the gamut. We have social scientists that perform important human performance research, technicians, welders, lab workers."

Although the National Academy of Sciences report notes that the military hasn't yet had trouble finding engineers to fill its ranks, experts say that in coming years, there's likely to be a crunch.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says the military will face the same struggles as private firms when it comes to recruiting highly-skilled workers: There's better money elsewhere.

"If you can do math in America, you'd be crazy to be a chemist," he says. "You can get much higher earnings in business or healthcare, and you don't have to stay in the lab. It's easier to just get the MBA and make money."

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The military's projects, experts say, take too long to entice many top engineers. Norman Augustine, former undersecretary of the Army and co-chair of the NAS report, said no one wants to spend 20 years working on a new weapon only to have it be scrapped before it's fielded.

While more lucrative and potentially rewarding work lies in the private sector, defense experts say the biggest challenge to keeping the military stocked with STEM workers is the issue of security clearances.

While private corporations are increasingly sending engineering work outside the United States due to a shortage of qualified American workers and cheaper wages overseas, the military doesn't have that option, with most STEM jobs requiring security clearances available only to American citizens.

"These jobs can't just be shifted overseas to foreign nationals," Adolfie says. "We have a need for clearable citizens."

The STEM pool becomes smaller considering that nearly half of America's new graduates in STEM disciplines are foreign born, making them ineligible for security clearances.

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Robin Williams, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity Education & Workforce Development Office, says his agency has been faced with many of the same problems as the DoD.

"We need U.S. citizens, that's the first major requirement. But a lot of U.S. citizens are eliminating themselves," he says. A bad credit history, foreign contacts, or work with "subversive" groups can cause someone to fail a background check, he notes. The internet is only making things harder. "With social networking, there's so much information out there on you."

In the NAS report, Augustine says the military might be forced to lower the bar for security clearances, farm out projects to research universities, or declassify certain projects.

According to the report, "there is scope within the current DoD system of controls for reducing the number of positions requiring clearances, depending on security threats."

Norman Augustine said the military should consider hiring foreign citizens to work on certain projects and wondered "whether much of the classified work is not being classified at too high of a level."

Adolfie says her department has looked into alternative programs to help ease the crunch, including accelerating citizenship for highly-skilled foreign nationals.