Tonya Wilkerson and Vietta Williams outline why diversity matters, and how the NGA is addressing it
What’s the key to recruiting a more diverse workforce to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)?
For starters, NGA must operate with a broader definition of diversity that encompasses not only ethnic and gender diversity, but also categories such as age diversity, neurodiversity, people with accessibility challenges, and even geographic diversity, according to Tonya Wilkerson, Deputy Director of NGA.
Wilkerson said that by opening up its lens, NGA stands both to expand its talent pipeline and also improve its operations.
“A highly skilled, profoundly motivated workforce that is represented by diverse backgrounds from all facets of society, makes us more resilient and prepared, and keeps us ahead of our adversaries,” Wilkerson said during a moderated discussion with Vietta Williams, NGA Director of Human Development, at the GEOINT Symposium 2023 in St. Louis.
For example, Wilkerson pointed out how some neurodiverse people are “exceptionally skilled at identifying changes in patterns and routines that allow them to excel in roles that require attention to detail,” and how deaf and hard-of-hearing personnel interact uniquely with the visual cues that are central to the GEOINT industry. Age gaps can also lead to multiple, valuable perspectives as people from different generations use technology differently. Wilkerson even pointed out the dangers of regional bias in the Intelligence Community (IC), which mostly hires from the east coast, and specifically from the Washington, D.C., area.
Recognizing a lack of diversity related to any of those vectors isn’t worth much if it doesn’t translate to different tactics, such as recruiting from a more geographically disparate group of colleges to counter an east coast emphasis. And part of the work is that people from underrepresented groups often need extra outreach to consider a career they otherwise might not have.
Wilkerson herself is an example. As a high-school student, the IC wasn’t on her radar. Only when her principal learned of a scholarship opportunity from a friend in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and recommended she apply did Wilkerson, a Black woman, think of pursuing a career in intelligence that has included stops at the National Reconnaissance Office and CIA as well as NGA.
To that end, Wilkerson is attempting to position NGA as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader within the IC, and to expand the agency’s recruitment and partnerships. NGA hosted an IC-wide celebration of diversity and inclusion efforts in May, and in June will host an IC-wide Pride Month gathering. The agency is also pursuing partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, both to recruit students and also to bring in faculty members to consult on NGA’s mission space.
“We learn from them more about what’s cutting edge; it expands our thinking set,” Wilkerson said.
NGA also is planning to expand its internship opportunities to include high school students, aiming to interest kids in STEM careers before they’ve made concrete decisions about their future plans. Wilkerson said that when she works with STEM-averse students, often a little bit of exposure goes a long way toward changing their perspectives.
Some students say “that they are not interested in STEM—‘I don’t like math, I don’t like science’—but they get excited when they’re engaging in a STEM-related activity,” Wilkerson said. “We should put aside the idea of not liking math or science, and think about how can we engage and provide opportunities that introduce STEM concepts, and do so in a fun way.”
NGA’s future depends on recruiting and retaining a vibrant, diverse, and talented workforce that breaks many of the agency’s traditional recruitment patterns and profiles. To do so, Wilkerson said, they’ll need to satisfy a career requirement a student raised at NGA’s May diversity celebration: a workplace that provides a sense of belonging.
“It’s the exact same thing that every single one of us looks for when we’re going into a work environment,” Wilkerson said. “So, the first best practice that I think there is with respect to recruiting diverse talent is making sure that there’s an environment that’s ready to welcome all.”
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