WASHINGTON — Millennials, the defense industry wants you.
As America’s baby boomers, named after the post-World War II birth surge, retire from defense-industry jobs, their former employers are counting on millennials, who are becoming young adults this century, to take their place.
At an event Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, defense industry executives dismissed stereotypes about millennials as claimants and a lack of work ethic.
“I’ve never met a lazy millennial, I can tell you that directly,” said Gordon Stein, the vice president of US operations for General Dynamics Land Systems, which makes the Abrams tank and other armored vehicles.
The comments came as the defense industry struggled with labor shortages, supply chain kinks, inflation and increased demand that led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We always say, ‘The millennials are coming.’ Millennials are here,” said Frank St. John, chief operating officer at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense company. “They currently represent the largest demographic of our workforce. They represent approximately 40% of our population.”
“They do a significant amount of the work, and our success is thanks to a few highly motivated — not lazy — millennials,” St. John said, adding that the industry’s national defense mission fuels employees’ desire to do important work.
Americans have quit their jobs in droves, a trend some have described as “the great resignation.” Stein said it’s been more like a “big retirement” for the defense sector as the pandemic has motivated baby boomers to exit the job market early.
“We knew it was coming, so how did we prepare for it?” he said. “So I think the pandemic has exposed some of these vulnerabilities and gaps that we as an industry, but at large the United States have had to address.”
According to a study by accounting and consulting firm EY, the average age of employees in the aerospace and defense industry since 2017 was around 47 years, while employees aged 55 and over made up 26% of the workforce.
According to the EY study, to attract workers under the age of 40, companies must embrace their values and offer internal or external job mobility to gain a wealth of experience, targeted corporate social responsibility initiatives and flexibility.
Motivation is not an issue.
“We didn’t see any motivational challenge at all,” said Lockheed’s St. John. “However, we recognized that millennials have a different perspective on work-life balance than, say, someone in my generation, who I was working in, and if there was a bit of free time for life, that was my balance.”
For Lockheed, efforts to attract and retain millennials have meant making workweeks more flexible and opening up expanded opportunities for employees, he said.
“It’s not like someone stays in the same job, say, does the same program for a decade anymore. We have to think about every 24 months or so – a new experience,” St. John said.
Contractors are seeking reskilling of their unionized workforce for the digital age, an effort that is driving partnerships with the US Navy and local governments.
This aligns with efforts to figure out the future of remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We see that millennials have benefited from the flexibility that COVID has granted all of us — or forced all of us to adopt,” said Amy Gowder, CEO of GE Aviation Military Systems. “But they still want the engagement, so we’re working on finding the right balance of that face-to-face collaboration that you can’t replace.”
For “remote work” that cannot be done remotely, such as B. Machining and welding, GE works with unions for training and education programs. That, she said, helps keep workers happy who want to keep learning and growing.
Millennials may soon have to share the limelight.
According to Stein, the industry should already focus on Generation Z, who were born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. To recruit artisans, talent pipelines need to start in high schools and trade schools, he said.
“That’s where you develop that talent, it starts right there in the schools and at home,” Stein said. “If you look at the demographics, we need to start now.”
Generation X, the generation between Baby Boomers and Millennials, was not mentioned at the CSIS event.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, government and the defense industry. He was previously a convention reporter.