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US labor shortage, needs of younger workers, worry DOD

Amidst a labor shortage, the U.S. Senate committee responsible for the Department of Defense is grappling with strategies to improve civilian personnel recruiting.

The U.S. Department of Defense's ability to hire is being hurt by competition from the private sector and even from other federal agencies. The labor shortage is getting the attention of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, which is looking for ways to help the DOD improve its ability to hire and fire.

At a hearing this week, the committee heard complaints that have been long-standing issues for federal hiring generally -- not just at the DOD. This includes a lengthy hiring and security clearance approval process, uncompetitive pay and difficulty in rewarding star performers.

"We cannot solve our acquisition problems without an adequate supply of skilled and trained workers," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee chair, at the hearing.

Reed said hiring issues are compounded by the differences between baby boomers and Gen Z.

"We know that younger Americans are prioritizing their personal growth over searching for a job," he said. That prioritization includes acquiring new skills, education and training, he said. 

Labor shortage pressures

Witnesses at the hearing said the main problem facing the DOD is competing for candidates in the current labor market. There are some 9.5 million open positions, against 6.5 million unemployed workers, information cited at the hearing and based on a recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The DOD has more than 700,000 civilian employees. A DOD career site currently lists more than 9,000 job openings.

The department should act aggressively to hire faster, pay competitively, reward performance and manage underperformance.
Julie LockwoodDirector of modernization, Institute for Defense Analyses

"The department should act aggressively to hire faster, pay competitively, reward performance and manage underperformance," said Julie Lockwood, director of modernization at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a nonprofit research group, who testified at the hearing.

Lockwood pointed out the hiring process is excessively slow, with wait times of three months to a year, which is particularly discouraging for young workers with student loans to pay.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking committee member, said it is not only difficult for the Defense Department to terminate underperforming employees, but to also recognize those who are performing well. "Most know of a truly exceptional performer who left the Department of Defense in search of better rewards for their hard work," he said.

The DOD labor shortage includes the broader defense industry, which has some 800,000 open jobs in manufacturing, according to a defense report.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said that one of the things the government can do is improve retention, and that means training management. According to SHRM's research, 60% of employees exiting their jobs, "leave not the employer, but their manager."

Money isn't everything

Increasing salaries isn't the recruiting lure it once was for the younger generation of workers, Taylor said. Younger employees will leave a job for less money "if they get to work for a more empathetic leader," he said.

Taylor argued that the Department of Defense can do more to recruit people leaving the military.

Service personnel can face difficulties getting civilian jobs because their military skills don't always easily translate. The Pentagon has been using an AI job-matching platform to help better military skills to civilian job requirements. 

But Taylor suggested this occupational mismatch creates an opportunity for the Defense Department. "Because in fact you might consider keeping those people," he said.

Another witness, Simon Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, emphasized the potential of transforming areas away from the East and West coasts into technology hubs. At one time, centers of innovation were dispersed throughout the U.S., but are now concentrated on either the East Coast or the West Coast, he said.

Johnson said there are hundreds of urban areas in 36 states where 80 million people live that could become development hubs. "There is potentially available labor," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau is an editor at large for TechTarget Editorial who covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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