Cover: Is the National Nuclear Enterprise Workforce Postured to Modernize the Triad?

Is the National Nuclear Enterprise Workforce Postured to Modernize the Triad?

Insights and Options from a Quick-turn Assessment

Published Jun 13, 2022

by Laura Werber, Frank G. Klotz, Brian Phillips, Noah Johnson, Lucas Greer, Brittany Clayton, Mark V. Arena, Chaitra M. Hardison

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Research Questions

  1. What are the inherent challenges to the federal workforce of managing the transition from existing nuclear deterrent capabilities to a modernized nuclear force and its associated infrastructure?
  2. What are the possible options for promoting workforce health that DoD and NNSA leaders and human resources specialists should consider?

Since the end of the Cold War, the health of the national nuclear enterprise workforce has been a matter of abiding concern to senior U.S. officials. The two government agencies with principal responsibility for this workforce—the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—have had to contend with adverse demographic trends, recruitment and retention challenges, and intense competition for specific skills and expertise, especially in scientific and engineering fields, to maintain a workforce with the capabilities and experience needed for nuclear-related duties. This report summarizes the results of a quick-turn, 90-day assessment of the health of the national nuclear enterprise workforce, focusing on federal personnel working in acquisition and scientific, technical, engineering, and math occupations. The study team used a mixed methods approach that relied primarily on extant data to consider workforce health in terms of workforce planning, recruiting and hiring, employee engagement and development, leader development, and morale and retention. The report features findings about enterprise strengths, such as promising practices that are candidates for broader use, and those about factors that challenge workforce health, such as evolving demand for more and different talent in light of simultaneous modernization and sustainment needs. The study team also offers recommendations to bolster the health of the nuclear enterprise workforce, both now and over the next decade.

Key Findings

The demand signal for additional federal and contractor acquisition and STEM personnel will likely continue into the near future

  • Many retirement-eligible personnel are expected to exit the nuclear enterprise workforce soon, leaving behind a large number of employees with limited experience.
  • There are some initiatives in place to promote the transfer of knowledge from retiring personnel to early and mid-career employees, but those are small in scale.
  • Workforce planning efforts (e.g., staffing studies) to understand where staffing shortages and skill gaps exist or are in danger of occurring in the future are limited.

Weaknesses within the enterprise and threats from the environment present talent acquisition challenges

  • Some interviewees suggested that the nuclear enterprise is not doing a particularly good job of selling itself as an employer of choice.
  • The private sector can be a fierce source of competition, at times seeking the same people as DoD and NNSA while offering higher compensation.

Despite advances and strengths, significant problems with career development and retention still exist across the enterprise

  • Many training and development activities with DoD and NNSA have been specifically developed for the nuclear enterprise context.
  • Another factor threatening morale and retention across the nuclear enterprise is poor working conditions. Employee dissatisfaction with facilities and information technology was repeatedly mentioned in interviews and surveys.

Recommendations

Five actions should take top priority because they will positively affect recruiting and retention outcomes

  • Ramp up workforce planning efforts, particularly those intended to address the age bathtub workforce distribution and to assess the right mix of federal and contractor workforces.
  • Engage in more-deliberate career management (e.g., use of nuclear-specific competency models and career paths, educational activities that build on each other) so that promising personnel and leaders perceive that they have clear development opportunities within the nuclear enterprise.
  • Step up efforts to promote One Enterprise thinking and collaboration in multiple ways, including in recruiting, rotational assignments and other development activities, and sharing of HR-related lessons learned.
  • Invest in physical facility infrastructure improvements, starting with locations in greatest disrepair or with aging infrastructure that is a stark contrast to local contractor facilities.
  • Embark on a public relations campaign to promote broader awareness and appreciation for the nuclear mission and the exciting, leading-edge STEM work it offers.

There are short-term steps to help bolster the health of the nuclear enterprise workforce

  • Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) members and other participants should advocate for investment in facilities and personnel.
  • They should support initiatives to enhance remote work opportunities.
  • They should establish an NWC-level working group on workforce health.
  • A long-range, strategic vision for the nuclear enterprise workforce that accounts for current demand and future requirements should be developed.
  • More-extensive, formal efforts are needed to prepare the next generation of leaders.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center and the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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