The Defense Department is likely the largest employer of engineers in the United States, and the department will need even more to continue to protect the nation, said Barbara McQuiston, who now performs the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
“The DOD has over 100,000 engineers, and they are incredibly important to us,” McQuiston said. “You can imagine the range of capabilities and personnel that we have working on the hardest problems — from civil engineers and software engineers to material engineers and chemical engineers — just a whole range of engineers looking at some of the toughest problems for DOD. We couldn’t function without them. They touch everything that we do. [They] create the possibilities for the future and the solutions we need for today.”
Engineer Week, which runs Feb. 20-26, is an opportunity for DOD to highlight the role engineers play in both arming service members and keeping them safe.
Engineers, McQuiston said, are first and foremost problem solvers.
“Engineers are people who apply science and creativity to solve problems and make new solutions and new possibilities for us,” she said. “They really like to work on the hardest problems. And when you think throughout humankind, there’s a lot of engineers. Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer, Tesla, Edison, Faraday [the] Wright brothers. It’s incredible, the amount of discipline and the new possibilities these engineers have created for us.”
In years past, engineering challenges for the department have included the development of new weapons systems, aircraft, construction projects, and combat vehicles. Those challenges still exist, of course, but now the department faces new challenges, McQuiston said. And DOD engineers are being asked to solve those problems too.
“Critical technology areas where we’re developing capabilities include renewable energy, biotechnology, trusted AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning, the future of manufacturing and digital engineering, programs like hypersonics, advanced computing, autonomous systems, and the development of new materials,” she said. “The list of possibilities is only constrained by an engineer’s imagination.”
Getting the best and brightest engineers into the DOD is a challenge, McQuiston said. Government employment and work within the government is often weighed down by bureaucracy, and there’s also the matter of compensation.
“There are challenges for us recruiting engineers, retaining engineers,” she said. “There are the economic challenges … a commercial engineer has the opportunity to work for companies, and right now, the competitive wages in the commercial sector make it very difficult for the government to match that.”
But McQuiston said the department is working to iron out the complications that might keep an engineer who could be the key to solving the department’s biggest challenges from ever signing on in the first place.
“We’re looking to create more ways and more opportunities to have flexibility and be able to reach out and offer opportunities for these highly sought-after professionals,” In colleges across the U.S., she said, the DOD is making inroads with young people who are studying science, technology, engineering and math, but who might not yet have decided about where they want to work.
“The Defense Department is doing quite a bit to support universities and STEM education and engineering,” she said.
DOD-funded programs like the SMART Scholarship Program and the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship, for instance, are investments the department is making in the development of new engineers, McQuiston said.
“We’re making investment in equity and diversity in the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutes, along with 14 other university-affiliated research centers,” she said. “We are always investing in the workforce of today and the workforce of the future in engineering and the sciences.”
Despite the challenges the department sees in getting the best and brightest engineers on board, McQuiston said DOD offers plenty to new engineers looking for a challenge and an opportunity.
“As an engineer coming right out of school, you have the ability to make a real difference while serving your country … to work on our most advanced systems and technology and participate in some really cool projects that are often at the edge of science” she said. “These opportunities are unique. They will help you for the rest of your life, giving you an experience where you can see how you can contribute to the challenges that we face today, both in national security and globally.”
Engineers within the DOD don’t just better the department, however. McQuiston said the department and its engineers contribute to improvements in technology across the U.S. commercial space as well.
“DOD investments in technology have had a huge impact on the U.S. economy,” she said. “DOD has a long and storied history of technology investments leading to transformational shifts in the American economy and society at large.”
McQuiston said things like transistors, cell phones, 5G cellular technology, computers and the internet all point back to DOD investments.
“We are putting a special focus right now on partnering with the private sector on dual-use technologies,” she said. “There are so many key technologies that we’ve invested in that you see today — whether it’s Kevlar, high-speed materials, or vaccines. These have all had a huge impact on the economic future of the United States.”
Pioneering investments being made by the DOD in a variety of areas, including energy efficiency, food security, biofuels, and biotech materials, will lead to new defense capabilities and increased economic activity for the U.S., she said. This will all be made possible thanks to the hard work of DOD engineers.
“The engineers that work on DOD programs are incredible,” she said. “Without our engineers, we’d come to a screeching halt. They are essential to everything we do, and I think their passion and their creativity is what’s going to move us forward in the future.”