Army Corps of Engineers worries about a shrinking pool of talent

Wednesday - 8/14/2013, 6:09am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Army Corps of Engineers says it's worried about a future in which its most talented staff retire with no one to replace them because of a national shortage of college grads with science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Agencies across government are grappling with the shrinking pool of U.S. college graduates with degrees in the STEM fields, but none more so than the Corps of Engineers, which bills itself as the world's largest public engineering firm. Out of 36,000 civilian employees and 600 military members, almost 19 percent of Corps' workforce is eligible for immediate retirement, and another 22 percent are eligible for early retirement, according to its latest human capital plan.

The pipeline of potential candidates to succeed those outgoing workers has been shrinking for decades. According to the National Math and Science Initiative, the U.S. led the world in the percentage of college graduates with STEM degrees 25 years ago. Today, we're in 16th place.

"The risks are that you don't have the technical competency in the numbers that you need to accomplish your mission," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the commanding general of the Corps of Engineers. "There's a certain amount of this talent that you need in-house. There's a certain amount that requires secret or higher classifications. I don't think we're ever going to put that at risk, but if you run short of the kind of talent you need in other areas, you just have to outsource a lot of that. And there's only so much of that you can do."

Bostick told reporters on a conference call that the Army Corps hasn't begun to run into serious trouble yet, but it's already finding it hard to recruit job candidates in certain specialties. Experts in fields like structural and geotechnical engineering are hard to come by, and the Army's competing with employers around the world.

Nationally, only four out of every 100 college graduates now emerge from school with an engineering degree, and Bostick says the nation's military academies, which have traditionally emphasized engineering, are exhibiting the same trends.

"It's not as drastic at places like West Point and ROTC, but we're feeling it," he said. "We're seeing the same decrease in the number of folks who are studying in STEM-related fields, the people who become our officers."

Bostick says while the overall number of STEM candidates is mostly a concern for the next few years, he's worried about the lack of diversity in the STEM workforce here and now. While the field has historically been dominated by white males, he says his own agency has made very little progress on the diversity front since he first graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1978.

"When I graduated from West Point, I was the only African-American who went into the Corps of Engineers out of almost 1,000 graduates. When I went back this year as the Chief of Engineers, we had two," he said. "You don't need a statistics degree to know that that's an issue. We've got to do better. I've got to do better to get enough students studying engineering, so that they can come out and serve, so that many of our young soldiers can look up and say, 'I can do that. I have a shot if I work hard.'"

Bostick said when it comes to engineering, he doesn't want to have a diverse workforce just for the sake of diversity. He says in his experience, the science and math parts of the job aren't the most challenging ones; the harder ones are solving problems with critical thinking and experience.

"When you're sitting around a table trying to solve a complex problem, you don't want people who all have the same background, who all have the same education, who all have the same thoughts," he said. "We want an Army that reflects America. If you don't have enough of that, I think it can have an impact on the organization."

Bostick took over as head of the Corps of Engineers last May, and he says he's still trying to get traction on the STEM and diversity issues.

But the command took what he thinks is one important step this past summer. He signed a memorandum of agreement with the DoD Education Activity, the office that runs schools on military bases, to cooperate on providing instruction that's designed to get children interested in STEM fields from an early age, and keep them interested.

"We believe we can, in a more systematic way, help develop the STEM curriculum," he said. "We can support teachers as they think about how to implement engineering and design. We think we can help with student awareness, talk about career opportunities, and invite them out for field trips. We're working this now face- to-face down at the ground level. We're looking at starting at 7th grade, and whether that's bridge building or understanding the Mississippi River, ecosystem restoration, dams and levees, recreation, those are the things we can talk very easily about in how the Corps is engaged."

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