Partnerships with STEM-focused nonprofits, schools and HBCUs part of the agency’s hiring strategy
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) campus under construction in St. Louis, along with the $2 billion investment that’s funding its creation, is both a boon to the heartland city and also a challenge.
It’s a boon because NGA—already the area’s third-largest employer—will provide a steady stream of high-paying jobs. And it’s a challenge for the same reason: NGA’s workforce consists largely of people educated in the science- and technology-related disciplines known as STEM. The United States produces far fewer STEM graduates than countries such as China and India, and the demand for STEM graduates in the St. Louis region will intensify once the new NGA campus comes online.
How can the NGA develop the talent pipeline it needs?
Its strategy depends in part on promoting STEM opportunities in communities that are traditionally underrepresented in the field.
Specifically, the country’s current STEM pipeline “doesn’t tap into minority communities,” according to Tonya Wilkerson, deputy director of NGA. “We need intelligence professionals that come from diverse perspectives, diverse backgrounds, and have diverse experiences.”
In Wilkerson’s view, NGA benefits from stepping up its recruitment efforts in diverse communities not only because it will reach an expanded audience, but also because the resulting workforce will bring a broader range of insights and ideas to their work.
“In our business, we cannot risk failure due to groupthink, meaning the potential for us to actually miss something,” said Wilkerson, speaking as part of a panel discussion at the GEOINT 2023 Symposium in St. Louis.
Accordingly, NGA is pursuing partnerships with an array of universities, area schools, and nonprofits engaged in producing more STEM graduates. Last summer, for example, NGA partnered with Harris-Stowe State University to host a cohort of undergraduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country for a monthlong GEOINT immersion program. This summer, NGA will host a group of 39 high school interns.
Wilkerson also said that NGA is developing a “Geo Explorer” program that aims to draw workers without college degrees into the GEOINT field.
In addition to NGA’s direct efforts, several St. Louis-based organizations are independently aiming to expose students to STEM careers and put interested students into training programs that could ultimately lead to NGA jobs.
“A lot of these families and children have no idea what these opportunities are. And so the need to expose students early on to these opportunities and educational efforts is critical,” said Patricia Hagen, Ph.D., president and founding executive director of the T-REX Innovation Center in St. Louis, which supports St. Louis’ tech and startup ecosystem. Hagen joined Wilkerson on the GEOINT panel.
In addition to drawing more workers from underrepresented communities into the GEOINT field and to NGA, another consideration is keeping them. Central to that retention effort is establishing a strong mentorship program, according to Wilkerson. And especially for workers who lack extensive exposure to the full range of GEOINT career possibilities, it’s important to get people excited not only about the possibilities within their current role but also about their next one.
It’s “having mentors in place that will show an employee how far they can go, and not just mentor them in the space where they are at that moment,” said Zekita Armstrong Asuquo, president of St. Louis-based Gateway Global American Youth & Business Alliance Academies, a STEM-focused workforce development nonprofit.
NGA’s campus in St. Louis will require thousands of talented workers to reach its potential, including many who don’t fit the traditional profile of a GEOINT professional. The agency, along with a host of academic and nonprofit partners, is committed to making it happen—and perhaps, in the bargain, to creating a blueprint for recruiting and retaining new workers in the fast-growing GEOINT field.