July 19, 2022

Why the U.S. Department of Defense Is Taking a Skills-based Approach to Talent Discovery

The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world, with about 3 million people working across all services. With a budget of $753 billion and operations in more than 4,800 sites in 160 nations worldwide, it’s tough to imagine how challenging recruiting and talent management must be for such a large organization.

Craig Robbins is a Senior VP of Talent at Prositions, a human capital solutions and HR tech company. He’s also a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve, serving as Talent Management Chief with the newly formed 75th Innovation Command, and is an adviser to the Army at large. His mission is to connect people from all walks of military life to meaningful work. 

Robbins found his talent-management role when he returned to the U.S. after deployment and discovered Prositions at a career fair. They were advertising a pro-veteran career program but had no veterans working on it. So they hired Robbins to help set up the program based on his military experience and skills. 

Hired for his potential, Robbins is now a decade into the HR space and focused on looking for new ways to place people with the right opportunities. 

“[The military] is an organization that can be a little bit slow to turn the boat and make change because you’re dealing with not only so many people, but you’re dealing with a lot of policy legislation, budget, and a lot of things that really slowed down our ability to be agile and move quickly and innovate,” Robbins said. “But I would say right now the Department of Defense is more focused on innovation and modernization than at any point in its history.”

Here are a few key learnings from Robbins (his views, not the DoD) on how the military is amping up its hiring programs. This includes a critical project called GigEagle, a new Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) project that leverages top talent from the Reserve and National Guard on demand.

Building a Better Way to Find Free Agents

“I really would say that the Department of Defense and the Army, in particular, has a significant problem when it comes to what I call talent discovery; how do we even see the skills and the experiences and the certifications of all those people on our team?” Robbins said. “We don’t capture the data. And if you don’t capture the data, you can’t search for the data. And so getting to GigEagle because the 75th Innovation Command is unique in the sense that we employ people’s civilian skill sets. We had to create a system that would allow us to capture and discover those skills.”

Managing talent across the DoD is incredibly complex. The Army has three components: Active duty, the people out there every day working full-time; the Reserve, people who contribute skills during set schedules in the year; and the National Guard, who work similar to the Reserve but within their states.

Robbins says that the DoD is going through one of its most significant talent transformations in over 70 years. A big part of that is transforming its HR tech into an integrated platform, including experiments in models like talent marketplaces and flexible career pathing. 

With an increased need for advanced cyber, software, and space skills, it’s especially critical to discover the skills they might already have with talent, not on active duty. The ability to find those people and harness those skills is why the talent-matching platform GigEagle was launched (full disclosure: Eightfold AI powers that platform). 

GigEagle taps into the Reserve and National Guard talent pool and surfaces previously undiscovered people to engage them in DoD work by staffing short-term “gig” project needs. These “free agents” can take gigs that range from a few hours to several months, many of which take place remotely.

Transforming DoD Culture with Data

The skills-based project approach is just the starting point. The idea of GigEagle is to transform how the DoD thinks about staffing projects. But one of their biggest challenges was sorting and using their data. 

“We’re all thinking about how to solve our data issue because if you don’t have the quality and quantity of data, you can’t really move forward on executing a plan and how you will use those free-agent skills,” Robbins said.

By going beyond basic skills matching with data, Robbins’ team is transforming their culture by changing mindsets about people working across boundaries and creating a gig economy within the DoD. They hired a director of people analytics to dig into and sort their data, all backed by an AI-powered platform.

This new idea of creating a working “gig economy” within the DoD is still gaining momentum in its early stages but gaining momentum. Robbins says that the incentive to take jobs will more easily fall into place once people see how easy it is.

“I think once the tech is there and the policies support it and the processes and workflows are in place, I think people will just realize that, ‘Oh my gosh, I can now think of the Department of Defense as an additional income stream,’” he says.

Finding the Right Talent for Any Crisis

We’re not just trying to leverage the whole person of the members of our team. We’re really trying to enable critical mission success. So when you think about a national cyber-security incident or a crisis, when you think about a national healthcare crisis, like COVID, the fact that the Department of Defense cannot see any of its people who have healthcare skills or cybersecurity skills outside of the military is a huge problem. I mean it, quite frankly, to me, it is a crisis of sorts, and certainly, we know what units and where our nurses are in the Army Nurse Corps. But when something on the scale of COVID occurs, we need to know where all the Reserve folks are.

The DoD’s new flexible approach to talent also helps them find and hire free agents faster in an emergency, in addition to shoring up new initiatives, like Space Force, which require entirely new skill sets. 

Robbins says that with AI and machine-learning advancements in technology, machines and humans will work together more often in crisis or emergencies, like on a battlefield. In addition, by tapping into skills that Reserve and National Guard members learn in their everyday jobs, they will be better equipped to integrate these highly technical, high-level skills into more advanced military projects.

While GigEagle is still in its early stages, Robbins says this new approach of skills-focused, project-based work will be vital in driving the innovation the DoD needs to prepare for anything, especially emergencies.

“I would actually argue that we’re all becoming more project-based because we’re all trying to do things that don’t fit the traditional historical mold of how we thought our organizations were designed,” Robbins said. “The future of work is going to be very project-based, and you’re going to have a lot more free agents.”