Designing a New Narrative to Build an AI-Ready Workforce

By Ronald Hodge , Jonathan Rotner , Inna Baron, Ph.D. , Diane Kotras , Dean Worley

Addresses the question of how we build an AI-Ready workforce through a blend of crafting an effective national narrative to attract talent, and keeping the modern AI workforce “in” with the national security arena in career fields associated with AI/ML.

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The Department of Defense (DoD) is struggling to keep pace with technological acceleration in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The DoD realizes that significant changes must occur for the military to sustain overmatch (advantage in combat capabilities over potential opponents) in this era of great power competition, but the Department lacks enough of the in-house AI skills and the ability to attract and retain the talent it needs to compete in the future . Those AI skills primarily lie in the component of private industry that falls outside the traditional defense-industrial base.

Unfortunately, the DoD and these companies have a mixed history in terms of establishing productive partnership, in part due to organizational speed and bureaucratic requirements, differing primary objectives, and cultural differences. While flawed practices have often reinforced skepticism in commercial technology communities about DoD’s motives, the information and communications technology industry shares responsibility for the damaged relationship between the DoD and industry.

In order to strengthen the bridge to industry, the DoD has taken positive steps, including periodic visits, summits, hackathons, partnerships, and successful one-off projects. However, to establish an ongoing, trusted, mutually beneficial, and more open relationship, the DoD must take two actions: 1) Change its narrative when reaching out to private industry and its employees—emphasizing the mutual benefits of partnership and how values and objectives align, and carefully targeting those messages where they might be most effective; and 2) make internal changes in the way the DoD integrates the potential new workforce into its organization.

This paper identifies shortcomings in the way the DoD and the larger federal technology community have sought to explain the benefits of intended adaptations of AI for national security applications to potential industry partners, the American public, and other stakeholder communities to gain their support. The DoD recognizes this as a problem and has taken some steps to resolve it. One of the ways the DoD can bring about change is by creating conditions where AI practitioners want to partner with the government. That means the DoD must lead by example and share stories of past collaborative successes, increase trust by making existing oversight and ethical processes known, and convey its messages and values in the language of the people that it seeks to attract.

Competition for AI talent is so intense that salary is unlikely to bolster the DoD’s ability to recruit and retain top talent. Retaining a robust AI workforce requires creating pathways for career development, demonstrating a willingness to learn from industry successes and challenges, and creating diverse and inclusive environments. Bringing in new AI talent requires a fresh look at novel incentives that the DoD could offer, expanding the eligible talent pool to include more foreign nationals, applying lessons learned in DOD’s successful creation of the cyber workforce, and exploring new recruitment concepts. Partnerships play an important role in building and sustaining the AI workforce and the DoD can learn lessons from the Intelligence Community and from connecting with startups.

A better communications strategy to support engagement with the public and with commercial industry will enhance the DoD’s ability to acquire the services of external talent. At the same time, a willingness to address cultural impediments that stymie the development of internal talent will enable an enduring approach to retain those very valuable people beyond mandated commitments. The DoD should lead by example in the deployment of responsible AI and must rethink how to attract and retain capable people. Recommended actions include creating increased opportunities for onboarding AI talent, further fostering the career development of AI staff already working with the DoD, providing this workforce with technology that enables them to do their jobs, and partnering with other government and private organizations.