Lawmakers look to workforce development to strengthen defense industrial base

By Jaspreet Gill / December 7, 2021

SIMI VALLEY, CA -- A lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee is urging the development of a collaborative initiative focused on workforce development to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.

Speaking here Dec. 4 at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee’s bipartisan Defense Critical Supply Chain Task Force, said filling manufacturing jobs will be a critical component to bolstering U.S. global competitiveness.

As of July 2021, there are 974,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs, more than double the 2019 average, according to PowerPoint slides shown during the forum.

A report released last month by the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Task Force on National Security and U.S. Manufacturing Competitiveness also stated that from 1998 to 2017, the U.S. lost nearly 70,000 small- and mid-sized manufacturing firms, many that were in industries critical to national security.

The report stated the United States must revitalize manufacturing to compete with China by scaling up its workforce training and establishing new partnerships with allies. The report also identified six major challenges impeding the country’s global competitiveness, stating declining strength in manufacturing leaves U.S. economic infrastructure and defense capabilities underprepared for geopolitical events, global competition and major armed conflict.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee task force released a report in July urging the Defense Department to facilitate workforce improvement by creating a partnership between DOD, industry and other partners to bolster manufacturing capabilities, with a particular focus on supply chain resiliency.

The report “was focused on a specific kind of output, like chips or rare earth elements,” Houlahan said. “What we quickly realized is, we weren’t going to get a whole lot of places if we didn’t also acknowledge the importance of workforce development, which I think obviously the Reagan task force did too.”

Strengthening U.S. manufacturing, she said, will require filling the U.S. economy’s technical skills gaps.

“There’s real useful conversation to be had about the importance of pre-K and the importance of early childhood literacy, the importance of kind of making sure that we’re bringing people all the way up through the process to have the skills they need to be able to perform the tasks that we’re asking them in this modern economy,” she said.

Bob Sternfels, McKinsey & Company global managing partner, said there also needs to be incentives for employers to train workers.

“The way we think about education today . . . won’t solve this problem,” Sternfels said. “We have to think about how do you upskill in mid-career? Stepping out of the workforce and not getting paid while you get re-skilled is not viable. So how do we think about boot camps? How do we think about more continuous learning? How do we actually think about incentives for employers to upskill?”

Defense bill targets manufacturing

House and Senate lawmakers today released a compromise version of the fiscal year 2022 defense authorization bill that includes several provisions related to manufacturing.

Lawmakers are directing the Pentagon’s chief technology officer to submit a briefing no later than Oct. 1, 2022, to the congressional defense committees on workforce development activities and proposed pilot-scale demonstration projects that support the deployment of disruptive manufacturing technologies into the defense industrial base, according to a joint explanatory statement released today.

The bill also tasks the CTO with developing a plan to ensure the transition of manufacturing technologies funded by DOD and developed by manufacturing innovation institutes to defense contractors. The technologies should support enhancing and securing the supply chain for manufacturing of weapon system, and ensuring increased quality and decreased costs of cybersecurity capabilities in manufacturing, according to the explanatory statement.