April 7, 2014
- We also offer the opportunity to work on compelling projects and technologies that are making a difference in people's lives, ... such as providing water resources assistance to countries in need, researching carbon nanotube-based materials and identifying their uses for warfighters, and building and restoring habitats for endangered species.
The United States once led the world in the percentage of undergraduate college students with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Today, it ranks among the lowest, according to the National Science Foundation. This national challenge has tremendous implications for the U.S. military because of the rapidly increasing importance of STEM in maintaining a strong economy and providing national security. Our military's ability to prevail on the battlefield and respond to advances in technology depends on a diverse, dedicated and competent team of professionals, which must include those with a STEM background.
At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), we have a highly skilled and dedicated team innovating and developing solutions for some of the nation's toughest challenges. Though the impending retirement of baby boomers and the loss of their institutional knowledge remain at issue, the lack of a diverse STEM workforce at USACE and across the nation is also of great concern.
Crucial segments of the U.S. population are underrepresented in the nation's STEM technical workforce, and thus the Army's workforce. Women and minorities represent more than half of the U.S. population but constitute 23 percent and 6 percent of STEM occupations, respectively, according to the latest National Science Foundation statistics.
The nation struggles with getting young people interested in STEM careers while they are in elementary and middle school, and with maintaining their interest in college. Women account for only 10 out of every 100 STEM undergraduate degrees; African Americans and Latinos account for five out of every 100 STEM undergraduate degrees.
We need more diversity in our organization--not just in gender and ethnicity, but in educational background, technical expertise and personal experience as well. Varied backgrounds and experiences bring inherently different perspectives and outlooks, which are vital to achieving innovative and enduring solutions to complex problems.
An important part of ensuring that we maintain the great technical advantage our Army enjoys is to continue developing a pipeline of talent that includes STEM. We have an obligation to build our STEM talent pool and inspire the next-generation workforce to consider the Army as an employer based on the challenging and rewarding work we do. Through our recruitment, retention and development efforts, we can effect change and succeed at this goal.
USACE has a long history of providing expertise and demonstrating the agency's value around the world. We have more than 35,000 civilians and 700 military personnel developing solutions to address complex issues such as sea level rise, climate change, force protection and renewable energy.
Our Soldiers have continued to answer the call to duty in repeated combat deployments. Many of our civilians have also deployed into harm's way. In the 12 years since 9/11, there have been more than 30,000 civilian deployments in support of overseas contingency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations. We're very proud that USACE civilians represented 11,000 of those deployments. Additionally, thousands of USACE civilians deploy each year in support of disaster response operations, both at home and abroad, including Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy.
The USACE civilians who have deployed, along with those supporting the combat effort from USACE locations across America and overseas, represent a variety of STEM occupations, including architecture, accounting, engineering and geographic information systems. They are our recruiters and ambassadors for USACE, telling stories about challenging projects and exciting opportunities. They act as mentors to college students through our formal partnerships with institutions including historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions and ROTC. They are introducing students to STEM fields through internships at our districts, divisions and the U.S. Army Engineer, Research and Development Center.
Last year, we decided to take a more direct approach to addressing the Army's STEM challenge. In May 2013, we established a one-of-a-kind partnership with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), which provides pre-K through 12th-grade education to the children of military families around the world. The partnership resulted in a USACE-specific STEM outreach program, STEM ED, which advances STEM education in communities where DoDEA and USACE activities are co-located. In addition, the DoDEA-funded effort benefits military families by leveraging the expertise and capabilities of USACE volunteers to engage students in real-world connections between the curriculum and the work of the STEM professionals.
STEM ED is a unique program of rigor that adds engineering design concepts to the curriculum, and provides integrated conceptual understanding and long-term interaction with students. Students work with a minimum of two USACE volunteers--military and civilian engineers and scientists--to explore a STEM project with the concept to build strong structures that withstand forces of nature. The USACE professionals are in middle school classrooms one to two hours per week for approximately six weeks, addressing challenges that relate to the USACE mission and align with the DoDEA curriculum.
We are maximizing our STEM awareness efforts by working with a diverse DoDEA student population which, at an impressive rate of 79 percent, has indicated plans to pursue undergraduate education. We want the students excited about STEM; we hope to encourage them to choose a career in STEM and, eventually, to serve the nation in this important field.
STEM ED is our second collaboration with DoDEA, the first being the development of several new, 21st-century schools built with an infrastructure that can adapt and respond to emerging requirements. These include schools at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, West Point Middle School at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, and schools at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium.
The STEM ED initiative goes hand-in-hand with the 21st-century school concept. When developing the plans for a school, you start with the question, "How do I teach in the 21st century" Then you address the question, "How do I build the school" We're providing expertise in both areas.
Initiatives such as STEM ED are good, but we need to further our efforts to inspire talented individuals who can keep up with the swift advancement of technology and the unpredictability of military needs. Ideally they would develop the creativity and innovation necessary to support our military and our nation to remain competitive in a rapidly changing environment.
Scientists and engineers are in demand all over the globe. So how does an institution like the Army that some perceive as "low-tech," as described by DOD's Joint Advertising, Market Research & Studies data, retain the highly skilled individuals it was able to attract? At USACE, we have a healthy civilian turnover rate of only about 8 percent, on par with industry. This is due in large part to the priority we place on preserving the skills of our workforce, as well as their ability to work on challenging, rewarding assignments.
To nurture critical STEM skills, we encourage all USACE employees to partner with mentors and to explore training and certification opportunities comparable to those of their career-military counterparts. As leaders, we must ensure that our workforce understands the value of obtaining and maintaining licenses and certifications. These credentials improve their professional competence and increase the credibility of the individual and the organization.
We also offer the opportunity to work on compelling projects and technologies that are making a difference in people's lives. Some projects are managed through their life cycle and others have a tremendous impact on the local community, such as providing water resources assistance to countries in need, researching carbon nanotube-based materials and identifying their uses for warfighters, and building and restoring habitats for endangered species.
Fostering the development of our employees and providing the opportunity to manage diverse projects allow USACE to remain fully competitive with industry in retaining the highest-qualified STEM talent, and ensure that our workforce can effectively and expeditiously meet emerging challenges.
USACE has many successful leader development initiatives. There is a clear commitment to this at every level, and our USACE team leads by example. One such effort is the USACE Leader Development Program, which is centered on education, developmental assignments and mentoring. Our commanders are closely tied to the program, each knowing which personnel have seen it through to completion. These leaders make workforce development a priority and give it the emphasis it requires.
We also have a professional development module in our annual Emerging Leaders Conference. Junior employees (usually GS-9 through -12) shadow their senior leader sponsors over 2 ½ days and work out the details of a career action plan. This mentorship program helps provide a clearer view of the steps to career progression and simplifies the navigation of a complex civilian personnel system.
It is imperative that we do all that we can to grow our professional leaders. During a time of constrained resources and increasing retirements, we cannot risk attrition of talented and motivated individuals.
At USACE, we are committed to doing our part to address the Army's STEM challenge. To be leaders in STEM, it is imperative that we use consistent, strategic tactics to attract young students who may have the proclivity for and interest in these fields of study.
Through focused investments in recruitment, retention and development, we can inspire the next generation of high-quality, diverse STEM professionals needed to fulfill our varied technical missions at the highest of standards.
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