DoD recognizes that it needs modern tools like AI and data analytics to succeed at multidomain operations, its strategy to fight and win across land, air, sea, and other domains on 21st-century battlefields.
Creating these capabilities requires a digital workforce: developers, systems engineers, product managers, data scientists, user experience engineers, technical program managers, and other roles.
The recent creation of the Digital Innovation Factory is a positive step to address the digital talent gap, but the DoD should be bold and create a “Digital Corps” to manage its growing digital workforce.
DoD has made some small, disparate efforts to harness uniformed digital talent through the Digital Service, AI Task Force and Enterprise Network Management Office. But enterprise-wide change cannot be sustained through piecemeal efforts.
Furthermore, “upskilling” or providing mid-career training to these servicemembers without changing their personnel management systems will create digital islands — skilled servicemembers with no career track and no institutional protection.
It is not enough to focus on putting the right people in the right places at the right time. DoD must develop new strategies for empowering administrators critical to the functioning of military specialties, but don’t fit within the traditional talent management system.
DoD must manage personnel policy, promotions, training, and certification of digital personnel in a way that the regular status quo could not hope to.
To understand where and why the Digital Corps fits within the talent management system, we should understand the other talent models: traditional, specialist, and professional.
The traditional model manages personnel in the core fields of the Services— infantry, armor, engineers, and artillery. These fields are unique to the Services and require training only within the branches.
Recruits are not required to have particular skills to enter and pick branches mostly on preference. Since the skill requirements for these fields are well-known and for the most part static, well-established recruiters treat personnel and roles as interchangeable parts. A job in these fields merely requires a person of a certain career field and pay grade, such as an infantry captain — any will do.
Personnel — both officer and enlisted — in traditional fields move between leadership, staff, and developmental assignments as their careers progress, grooming them for the broad needs of “generalship.”
Indeed, most of the generals in the Marines come from, value, and select these traditional fields and skill sets for promotion. Military planners have had decades to learn how to properly assign people and resources to traditional units.
The resulting system is an assembly line that moves traditional personnel from one established billet to another, treating them as items to assign to a unit, where the goal is filling vacancies, rather than a personalized approach to talent management where the goal is to align skills to teams and missions, but DoD has struggled since inception to retain Digital Innovation talent.
Specialist fields like aviation and special operations forces are somewhat similar in that they are also unique to the Services — though there are contractor helicopter pilots, few shoot Hellfire missiles or get shot at.
Specialist fields also have an established Service training pipeline. These branches differ from infantry, armor, engineers, and artillery in two key attributes: They require a certain level of assessed proficiency — either the Flight Aptitude Screening Test or special operations forces assessment and selection for entrance, and they have well-known but highly technical skill sets that atrophy quickly.
The military recognizes that pilots lose proficiency in flying quickly, so time in the cockpit is prioritized. Unlike traditional branches, aviation is heavily staffed with warrant officers due to technical expertise requirements.
Putting aviation officers into desk jobs actively deteriorates their skills — they get better at flying by flying a lot. Aviation officers also have many specialization options based on aircraft variants and special training courses, so the branch has many occupational specialties and additional skill identifiers to track and manage its talent pool within the same industrial-era framework that traditional branches use.
Finally, the military professional corps functions differently from traditional branches. These roles are not unique to the armed services and have contractor training and accreditation pipelines, generally require expertise prior to entering the DoD, and require specialized skills not needed within the traditional Service Structure.
In the professional corps the services delineate between technical experts and administrators. This model allows officers who are highly skilled experts to practice their professional skills rather than serve in traditional leadership roles as platoon, company, and battalion commanders or as staff officers, although they can.
This model — allowing personnel to serve a career promotion track while remaining with skills — is similar to how technology firms delineate between technical experts, ie, digital engineers, data scientists, technical program managers and operations roles, ie marketing, logistics, account managers while allowing for technical experts to be promoted in non-managerial positions to focus more deeply on their area of expertise.
DoD recognizes the importance of specialist labels in lieu of an over-generalized label. Instead of the “any infantryman will do” mentality, these professional corps have a variety of technical specialty and skill codes to more precisely define areas and levels of expertise. Assignments managers work closely with each person to account for unique roles and skills not tracked in the system, for example, personnel who also do research.
None of these models is perfect for managing the unique challenges of the digital workforce, but all have something to offer in shaping the new Digital Corps.
The traditional model works well for a force that needs to scale across hundreds of thousands of people but fails for people with specialized skillsets. The specialist model prevents skill atrophy and prizes specialization but struggles to account for the expertise required in accessions and dynamic changes in required skills. The professional model comes closest in guiding highly skilled individuals within the Services’ talent system, but still requires tailoring to fit the needs of the digital force.
Unfortunately, there will always be some uncertainty or gap around military force planning for emerging technologies. No model can project what talent is required to man future technology force structures with the precision needed to fit within existing Marine Resources Command manning structures.
The need for a comprehensive understanding of both talent development and assignment requires a model that communicates the full personnel lifecycle. Said differently, the Services needs an even more flexible model.
Rather than adopt an existing “professional” model lock, stock, and barrel, we will evaluate digital talent management through a Marine Innovation/Learning Strategy. The strategy is built on four pillars that comprise a Marine’s entire service experience: acquire (recruit, screen, hire), develop (train), employ (assign), and retain (evaluate, promote).
Step one in building a digital force is acquiring digital talent — identifying, recruiting, screening, and hiring candidates. Despite arguments over the merits of technologists in uniform, the Marines decision to invest in AI experts and developers signals that they clearly recognize that making digital skills the exclusive domain of civilians and contractors creates a dangerous condition where the Services don’t understand how its core digital information technology systems function.
This lack of awareness invites future strategic risks as key leaders are unable to make rapid and effective decisions about employing or developing digital capabilities.
Since digital skills and best practices are more prevalent in industry, so Marines need to leverage a blend of all relevant ways to acquire talent. These include Digital Excepted Service authorities, and effort to hire skilled digital professionals. Direct Commissioning authorities enable skilled civilian technologists to serve in uniform at senior ranks and future investment in lower echelons.
First, DoD should look to traditional commissioning sources like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps focused on digital skills. Digital skills like networks development and artificial intelligence have been identified in recent National Defense Authorization Acts, so DoD needs to respond by increasing the supply of digital officers. The new applied Digital Corps program is a start, but the efforts should not stop there given the unfilled need for AI designers, innovators, developers, architects, and other skills.
Investing in traditional pipelines should be complemented by leveraging direct commissioning authorities, but there are risks associated with relying heavily on direct commissioning for the Digital Corps — especially now as the culture is forming. The shortened training program that direct commissioning entails is a clear trade-off in the service contract:
The Services accepts risk of less military training, decreased indoctrination, and higher projected turnover rates in exchange for commissioning contractors who already have special expertise. Filling the new Digital Corps with “outsiders” who don’t understand military culture and norms will erode trust and potentially create a culture of “technologists who happen to wear a uniform” instead of “soldiers who happen to code.”
In addition to creating an increased supply of digital officers, DoD should create the relevant assignments for these leaders to fill. While some junior leaders have been placed into digital transformation roles, many other emerging technologists have been blocked due to the lack of direct sponsorship from a general officer constraints like their professional timelines or professional education requirements.
Until the Services have a robust digital personnel acquisition pipeline it should focus on developing digital talent from the personnel it has. It is important to distinguish familiarity from expertise. Although creating a “digitally literate” force is necessary in the digital world, it is no replacement for digital experts.
For example, Marines are taught battlefield first-aid, because Services would never rely on artillery officers training in combat lifesaving in lieu of the Digital Corps. Coding boot camps and entry-level certifications create familiarity, but will not yield the full transformative value of digital skills. The military will need to rely on experts who can see through hype and evaluate expensive training programs honestly.
Developing talent can again rely on existing programs developed by contractors in industry. For members of the Digital Corps, encouraging extensive use of the Pentagon’s Training With Industry program would be an invaluable broadening assignment rather than merely a “nice-to-have” and could be considered a requirement for promotion to high ranks.
Lastly, there is no centralized accreditation board for digital tech expertise. There are many certifications, but not a true credential. Degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, and information technology are strong proxies, but some candidates are self-taught and learned by doing.
Digital problems require certain expertise to fix, so digital experts cannot be treated as interchangeable parts. A machine learning expert may know little about website design, so the Digital Corps will need a detailed and evolving system of digital skills.
DoD Talent Management Task Force has been working on developing a structure for knowledge, skills, and behaviors, and is working to build a digital talent marketplace that helps candidates choose jobs and jobs choose candidates based on skill supply and demand.
Once these roles are created, innovative digital talent should be flexibly managed to ensure that they are assigned to teams that can best use their capabilities. If commanders had to compete for talent by pitching their projects and problems to technically talented servicemembers capable of building digital solutions, commanders might be less likely to relegate those hard-won technologists to PowerPoint slide-making.
The need for a centrally managed talent pool was a core part of the Defense Innovation Board’s Workforce Now recommendations, and should be included in the Digital Corps.
Once employed, retaining talent is a two-part challenge: The Services can choose to show people the door (involuntary) or people can choose to leave (voluntary). Bleeding talent in either way is costly.
Involuntary attrition occurs most frequently when a service member is passed over for promotion, reaches a mandatory retirement date, or fails to meet fitness standards. During promotion boards, officers are grouped by specialty into competitive categories.
Competitive categories collect specialties that can compete against each other for promotion. Creating a competitive category for digital technologists will likely improve officer promotion rates and may strengthen bonds between existing functional areas in technology areas by providing a collective sense of purpose and identity.
Furthermore, having technologists evaluate other technologists may help to focus the leaders on technologists’ contributions, whereas it’s plausible that non-technical administrators rating technologists may emphasize administrative minutiae or physical fitness over digital skills.
Two often cited risks for voluntary separation are pay and frustration. Like involuntary separation risks, pay is addressable within the DoD current structure. The military already pays for special skills — technical skills should be immediately added.
Frustration is likely to be a larger factor and is harder to fix. What happens when a highly skilled developer is not given the right tools to create digital innovative constructs? Do they need to jump bureaucratic hurdles to do a basic job, or leave the field of expertise for several years to check a box for a broadening assignment? These are harder problems. The last, however, is a talent management issue that can and should be solved with the Digital Corps model.
Let’s assume that the services commit to creating a Digital Corps. What happens next? What outliers will they need to confront? Organizational change often fails when leaders fail to consider second-order effects or edge cases.
Candidates who complete digital training are the top candidates for the initial Digital Corps billets, in addition to anyone who applies directly based on existing skills. This will give leadership time and space to maneuver and address the larger challenges.
The Services should understand their mid-term roadmap for civilians and contractors, but also work to avoid losing uniformed talent to become contractors due to pay or removing them from roles where they get to use their digital skills. Perhaps just as importantly, these personnel should be provided with unique leadership and cultural structures to flourish, which are distinct from the command and control concepts found in traditional military hierarchies.
Lastly, there are already existing specialties with overlapping skills, and service leadership should sort out equities. Operations research specialists are similar to data scientists but may need further training, while network operations could get pulled into the Digital Corps directly. The services should also create a path to upskill selected candidates from existing branches — the leader of the AI factory could be a helicopter pilot after all.
The questions presented here show managing digital tech talent is a “right now” problem for the Military and must build tools that are in the hands of users in contact with the battlefield every day.
It’s easy to try to fit digital tech talent into industrial-era models, but following the traditional branches will inevitably lead to the same mismanagement and attrition that is fueling current calls for reform. Talent management is an investment, not a cost, and the effort to execute a bold vision for uniformed technologists will pay off over the long term.
The military of the future will not merely shoot slightly further and move marginally faster. By creating digital innovation factories, and the talent factories that sustain them, the Services must clearly recognize the character of conflict is changing — just as it did during previous industrial revolutions.
If the Marines want to remain a dominant force the Service to keep adversaries at bay, ow better to demonstrate the characteristics of offense — surprise, concentration, audacity, and tempo — in the current security environment than by seizing the opportunity to build a digital force built for the information age?
No matter the type or their niche, there’s a common set of recruiting skills that every good recruiter needs to have to do their job well. Here are some of them and how you can spot them in a good digital corps recruiter.
1. Attention to detail. Attention to detail is vital for recruiters so work can be done with a relatively small talent pool,
2. Marketing skills. Finding top talent in today’s market is extremely hard. The number of open positions is much higher than the number of applicants and candidates won’t rush to any company out there.
3. Communication skills. No matter the position they’re trying to fill, the recruiter is the key link between a company and a candidate. Depending on the impression they make, they can either attract or discourage the candidate for applying.
4. Relationship building skills. Great recruiters think of recruitment as a relationship between a candidate and a company. Similar to a sales process, it takes much more than a single touchpoint to make a sale, or in this case, fill a position
5. Multitasking skills. Hiring is a lengthy process, and there’s quite a lot between posting a job and filling an open position. Recruiters need to, screen applicants, conduct interviews, etc. multiple things at once and excell in each of them.
6. Time management skills. With multitasking comes time management, as there’s only a certain amount of hours in a day and sometimes, companies need a position filled very quickly.
7. Patience. A successful recruiter needs to have a great amount of patience, as they deal with both candidates and companies. A simple task such as setting up a job interview can require quite a lot of patience from the recruiter’s end, as they often won’t be able to find a term that suits everyone.
8. Listening skills. Besides listening to the companies they’re hiring for, recruiters need to listen to applicants with great attention. Applicants, in particular, are very important because their feedback is crucial to placing them in a position that suits both them and their future unit.
9. Teamwork skills. Whether working externally or internally, recruiters need to function within a team to find the best employees for an organization.
10. Digital skills. Basic understanding of Digital skills can go a long way for a recruiter’s success. Proficiency in digital programming, design, system administration, etc. can help find the best candidates in these fields.