The Department of Defense (DoD) has fallen behind the private sector in recruiting civilian talent and it has no solid strategy to catch up, according to a March 17th Defense Business Board (DBB) study.

The civilian workforce is the “backbone to an effective and efficient total force” and yet, the Pentagon doesn’t have a discernable talent pipeline for its civilian workforce, and little effort has been spent to market DoD as an attractive civilian employer, the study says.

“Civilian recruitment at the DoD is decentralized, de-emphasized, underfunded, limited, hindered, complex, and lengthy,” the study states.

These factors – in addition to market stressors – have put the department at a significant disadvantage in civilian talent recruitment compared to other employers, especially when it comes to mission-critical occupations and intense private-sector competition.

“The Pentagon is at a tipping point. The DoD Talent Acquisition approach must change, and DoD must strive to become the ‘employer of choice,’” the study states.

To get to that point, DoD must follow private industry in embracing the talent pipeline by expediting hiring, expanding the talent skillsets, achieving better retention, and reducing talent acquisition costs.

A key effort the DBB recommended in its report is for the Pentagon to create a specialized cadre of civilian recruiters from within its own human resources workforce. According to the report, the DoD has about 15,000 people who work full-time to recruit members of the military. But it only identified about 100 individuals whose primary job is to recruit civilians – about half of those are in the U.S Air Force.

The study goes on to emphasize that the DoD needs to focus on building an “employer brand,” and do a better job of communicating the wide breadth of positions available throughout the civilian workforce.

“The DoD is currently involved in a ‘War for Talent’ which will undoubtedly intensify, and the department must embrace talent pipelines or risk losing ground in the great power competition,” the report states.

About 42 percent of Americans do not know civil service jobs exist within the DoD, and those that do typically associate the work with only war efforts.

The lack of focus on recruiting efforts is in sharp contrast from that of private sector employers the Pentagon is competing with for talent. The private sector views recruiting as the lifeblood of business operation and therefore evolves to include more specified human resource roles; leverages digital tools, artificial intelligence, and data to focus resources; focuses intently on return of investment, outputs, and outcomes; and cultivates pipeline talent, speeding the hiring process.

In addition, delays in hiring have also become an increasing challenge in the DoD’s effort to grow its civilian workforce. According to the report, hiring delays have real consequences for DoD’s ability to compete for high-quality candidates.

The study found DoD’s current average time to hire civilians is 81 days. Although that’s down from a recent high of 99 days in 2018, the department hasn’t made much progress in reducing that number any further for the past three years.

The board also found that the DoD’s civilian talent challenge goes beyond the department’s current hiring rate – future workforce planning is admittedly flawed, the study states.

The DBB recommended that the department focuses on building talent pipelines that mirror the ones in private industry – actively cultivating future hires, and not just waiting for people to apply for positions once they’re posted on USAJobs.

Other recommendations the DBB made include: incorporating public and private sector best practice talent acquisition metrics; submitting a legislative proposal to revise the 180-Day Military member delay for DoD civil service, engaging the Office of Personnel Management to improve hiring tools; and implementing a skills-tracking system to capture all employee competencies.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.