A new era of labor competition is occurring among employers and the emerging regional economies that are building up around them for an educated, knowledgeable, and healthy workforce. To compete for this labor, economies are already cultivating innovation ecosystems to access high-tech labor pools and then solicit corporations and tech startups with this new talent. Critical thinking, information literacy, and technological skills are those knowledge-based attributes that corporations in the private sector will compete for. The Department of Army must solicit, acquire, and cultivate these same knowledge-based attributes in order to modernize its future force.
The private sector has recognized that the union of what have previously been distinct disciplines will make its workforce more agile in a complex world. The convergence of social and technological competencies required in today’s corporations is altering the labor pools from which they draw their talent. An understanding of these patterns that are occurring will better help the Army understand the labor pools of talent that are assembling.
The Three Convergences
A defining characteristic in a world of accelerated innovation is convergence, whereby new technologies are created through the interaction of distinctly different ones. Phones, cameras, computers, and televisions, for example, were once entirely distinct technologies with completely separate hardware but a single device can now serve as all of these and more.
The concept of convergence is also a useful paradigm through which to understand the labor wars taking shape. In fact, there will be three convergences—of technological competencies, socioeconomics, and talent—that will shape future labor pools. Arising from these convergences will be new aptitudes—learning to always learn, information literacy, and technological adeptness. Learning to complete a single task will no longer suffice. The ability to unite social and technological competencies will define a new corporate professional. These convergences are shaping labor pools now. Those within industry that understand these convergences will be well positioned to win the labor wars, and the same holds true for the Army.
In an era of contested equality the ability to merge new and novel technologies will create the exponential change within operational environments needed to maintain superiority. Robotics, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence, among others—these are the technologies that will have profound effects on warfare, society, and industry, and will have even more profound effects as they converge.
For the Army, being able to converge effects in multiple domains will require continuous renewal on two fronts: how to conceive convergence of new technological effects; and how to execute such convergences at the operational level. The planners and operators who will do the converging must possess the cognitive capacity to maintain pace with technological change. As the Army accelerates innovation and technology development within its modernization priorities it must ensure leaders enter into a continuous learning cycle beyond branch and functional expertise. Leaders at all echelons must possess a propensity to understand technological convergence across all domains, and how to drive technological change when a gap is identified.
The labor pool that must accommodate convergence of technologies is shaping now. A younger class of innovators is developing across the United States astute in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Secondary educational institutions have mobilized to produce programs that focus learning in these fields. This is the labor pool the Army and industry will compete for. Just as the Army will converge technological effects to destroy a threat, so too will private industry converge technology to simplify business processes and connect with their markets. And it won’t be the aging labor market providing the expertise of how to converge these technologies. That expertise will originate from the new generation of innovators possessing a new generation of talent.
Technology can enable regional and global economic progress. There is a socioeconomic convergence taking place, as well, whereby the effects of technology, new and increasingly accessible markets, and growing urban populations are combining to provide labor pools for expanding regional industrial bases and produce new economies. In the traditional sense, a new economy is a transition from heavy industrial manufacturing to technology-driven service-based industries. Today, these new economies include production powered by robotics, cloud computing, and big data, among other digital technologies.
A new manufacturing economynd a skilled workforce are areas of strategic importance for the future defense industrial base and the Army. Manufacturing dominance that was once an American advantage is now a strategic concern—so much so that the National Security Strategy specifies the need to prepare American workers for high-wage manufacturing STEM jobs. Emerging technologies will continue to drive the need for skilled workers and transform production. Globally, manufacturing is growing and accounts for approximately 16 percent of global GDP. And this transformation will enable new manufacturing economies to create new worth for both the manufacturing industry and the societies within which it resides. As these economies emerge, the reciprocal effect will be to drive more innovation for new manufacturing technologies to increase manufacturing dominance.
New manufacturing economies critical to the defense industrial base will rely on a skilled workforce. From October 2018 to December 2019 the US manufacturing industry has hovered at a deficit of between 350,000 and 500,000 job openings. Key to filling these positions is a technology-savvy workforce. By 2028, that number could rise to as many as 2.4 million unfilled manufacturing jobs as the tech-based sector continues to grow. With economic growth and an aging workforce the opportunities for a career in modern manufacturing will be attractive. The average manufacturing employee earns 25 percent more in pay and benefits than the average worker across all industries; and the work is high-tech, hands-on, and fulfilling. High-tech manufacturing corporations are organizing to locate the needed technological aptitudes and literacy. Managers skilled in blockchain and agile project management and employees skilled in mechanical, electrical, and digital competencies will be recruited. And the new manufacturing economy is mobilizing for a labor war to offer this talent a promising career, as evidenced by the emergence of innovation ecosystems across the United States. For instance, Houston, Texas, a disproportionate source of Army recruits, has raised twenty-five million dollars from nine corporate limited partners to go get the talent.
The final convergence is within the workforce that must respond to the needs of new technologies and emerging economies. No longer are data scientists relegated to the tech industry. Today, software engineers imbued with real knowledge in agile software development and data scientists proficient in structured and unstructured data analysis have infiltrated the non-tech sectors. Conversely, the technology industries themselves are looking outside of solely tech-minded competencies to solicit management talent to fill a growing array of roles.
The US Army must converge the aptitudes of technological literacy and social intelligence among three primary labor pools to create a dynamic workforce: within its own ranks, through public-private partnerships, and from coalition partners. The Army’s recruitment, development, and retention of the new generation of labor will provide access to information literacy and technological aptitudes required for the future force. But, especially in a strong economy, this population of talent will have to be accommodated with real incentives beyond Army social programs. Next, public-private partnerships can provide access to critical skills and expand access to outside expertise by working with corporations, startups, and universities. The labor pool that such outreach is aimed at reaching will need to be incentivized to work with the Army and hiring contingent workforces from this population should be investigated. Finally, there is the labor pool composed of talent provided from our allies and partners. They can infuse our workforce with regional viewpoints necessary to expand our understanding of the operational environment.
Contemporary businesses are already converging workforces. They enact faster business processes to maintain pace with the global market. To do this, agility methods have been adopted to adjust and respond to information in order to maintain pace. Business agility empowers organizations to leverage networked technologies to respond rapidly to the operating environment’s changes. This management style has become a model for uniting social and technological competencies and it is needed within the US Army to complement convergent workforces. A burgeoning class of young, global professionals who possess this management style is emerging. These new professionals participate in the international free market, understand complex relationships, operate within the megacities of the world, and rapidly adapt to the ubiquitous use of new technologies. And they should become a primary target in the oncoming labor wars.
Training for the World
The US Army is a task-based institution. Entry-level training is conducted, an occupational skill is acquired, and soldiers are managed within a branch. This approach to work is fading among younger labor pools. A new “portfolio of experience” movement is shaping workforces for industries in need of convergent skills. The Army too should work to build a force of diverse portfolios replete with tech-minded warriors distributed in all billets. This means placing less emphasis on the Army’s “skills match” strategy, and more emphasis on continuous learning and credentialing at the same scale as the private sector. In complex convergent environments the force that possesses the right diversity of disciplines wins. For instance, the technology industry now employs varied disciplines and is maturing to more traditional non-tech jobs of executives, project managers, operations managers, financial analysts, and marketing managers.
Developing portfolios of experience is not what the Army does. One may be tempted to argue that broadening opportunities and functional-area expertise engender diverse experiences. But these tend to be pathways to known problem sets in institutions often culminating with the end of a career. A portfolio of experience is dependent upon continuous learning and aggressive (distributed) assignments. And continuous learning must transcend all occupational specialties. Real continuous learning would enable a soldier to maintain pace with a peer working in a private-sector company that exists, functions, and survives within complex environments. Industry certifications, qualifications, and advanced degrees are a matter of routine process for global professionals. And they should be for every soldier as well.
For instance, it’s inconceivable that a Warfighter Exercise, the Army’s premier virtual, multi-echelon exercise requiring months-long train-ups, leaves its participants with no credentialing to maintain pace with private-sector industry. Every Warfighter should result in Scrum, SAFe, and Kanban Management Professional certifications. Anyone with access to data (everyone) should walk away with big-data proficiencies in Hadoop, SAS, Cloudera, or SQL, and even become a Certified Data Management Professional. Credentialing in software coding, security information management, IT infrastructure management, cloud computing, and cyber security are technological competencies that constitute real continuous learning.
Both officers and enlisted alike need these skills, among many others. If you don’t believe the Army is struggling with continuous learning then go visit a military job fair. These gestures of good will are a testament to the failure of the military to properly care for its human capital. Job fairs are an antiquated, twentieth-century way of seeking entry-level employment. Any soldiers who exit the Army at four years or more should be fully credentialed and certified to seamlessly participate within industry without needing to reinvent themselves. But more than prepping for life after service, building the future force will require continuous learning now in order to adapt to the operational environment and drive innovation.
The Labor Wars: More Contested and More Complex
Talent is a critical resource and as people are attracted to the best opportunities that talent will become scarce. Corporations are competing for an educated workforce, and cities are in turn competing to attract these corporations to strengthen their communities. This is where a sort of “perfect storm” characterizing the new labor war has begun: corporations are recruited by regional economies, who in turn leverage their influence within regional ecosystems to acquire the best talent—the same talent that the Army will require.
The Army must maintain its total active- and reserve-component force of just over one million personnel in order to possess the capacity to conduct future large-scale, decisive-action operations. This will require competing against a US economy that currently has over six million unfilled jobs and an unemployment rate below 3 percent in several metropolitan areas. High-tech industries have become an essential part of these economies. By 2016, nearly 10 percent of all jobs accounting for over 18 percent of production output were attributed to high-tech industries. Currently, employment sectors within high-tech industries pay higher wages than other industries. Also, continued advances in manufacturing technologies and production processes are expected to accelerate innovation and have significant implications for labor markets through 2030. The challenge for the Army is clear: the domestic tech sector will attract critical talent for the next ten years, just as the Army is seeking to produce “the Army of 2028.”
The high-quality recruit of today is fully aware of opportunities in the private sector. The wages alone provide a compelling case to forgo military service. Not only does, the Bureau of Labor Statistics records higher median wages in high-tech industries than in non-high-tech industries across every major occupational group, but emphasis in STEM fields further elevates salaries. So, while the Army talks the talent will walk. And the data is starting to show this. For the first time since 2005 the Army missed its recruiting goal in 2018, falling 6,500 active-duty recruits short of its goal for the fiscal year; that same year saw a deficit of eight thousand in the National Guard and nine thousand in the Army Reserve. The Army is focusing on taking high-quality recruits and this undoubtedly affects onboarding talent. But in the midst of a strong economy the Army, and DoD as a whole, are going to have to make real modifications to attract the talent needed.
The most technologically savvy labor force yet known is forming. And to get that talent both corporations and regional ecosystems are employing the most sophisticated techniques and advanced technologies to find it. The expansion of economies has spawned urban innovation ecosystems to recruit and cultivate labor pools possessing tech-sector skills. The Army must maintain pace in soliciting this talent or risk losing a generation of innovators. Local officials and business leaders in America’s cities, and in cities around the world, are mobilizing from a position of advantage to aggressively go get this talent and win the labor wars.
The new era of great labor competition will originate from regional and global economies. As socioeconomics, technological competencies, and talent converge within these economies new aptitudes in the workforce will emerge. To win the labor wars, economies will support innovation ecosystems to recruit persons with aptitudes of technological literacy and social intelligence. And once recruited, great employers will invest in continuous learning for their employees. The US Army needs this same talent to build its future force. To do so will require a real commitment to continuous learning and the ability to broadcast its portfolio of experience to new recruits. The labor war has begun. How the US Army chooses to compete will be essential.
Col. Clarence J. Henderson is the owner of a construction company in Houston, TX and understands the dynamics of labor pools. He has commanded at all levels through an IBCT within the reserve components and is a veteran of multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the southwest border.
Image credit: Alun Thomas, US Army