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How the Defense Department’s AI center recruits top tech talent without top salary offers
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How the Defense Department’s AI center recruits top tech talent without top salary offers

You think it’s hard to recruit tech talent right now? Try doing it for the Department of Defense.

Heather Durgin is chief of staff at the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), a division within the Pentagon’s sprawling operation tasked with furthering the US military’s understanding and use of artificial intelligence. The JAIC was established in 2018, and Durgin has been in charge of beefing up the department’s personnel since May 2021, which means scouring the labor market and competing for talent with the foremost names in the tech industry.

Compared with private-sector tech companies, the JAIC is an outlier in the AI space, which, according to Durgin, means recruitment efforts have to be creative to stay competitive. HR Brew spoke to Durgin about her recruitment strategy and why AI might not be a substitute for human connections in the hunt for promising hires.

What is it you do at the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center? I do a little bit of everything. So as the chief of staff, I have a couple of different departments that work for me, that are all centered on the support services for the workforce. So the people who are adding value to the organization that are accomplishing our mission. And so security reports to me, and in security, we’re talking about physical security, background security, information security, and then facilities also reports to me. We’re actually in the process of building out a new facility. And actually, probably later on today, I will file paperwork to expand our current footprint in the building that we’re in. Because, as you know, artificial intelligence is a huge, huge growth area. I also have human capital, which reports to me as well.

Human capital being a department within the DoD? Yeah, human capital for the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

Can you walk me through what it’s like to cast a wider net for your recruitment efforts that encompasses candidates who don’t have government experience? That is a very, very hard problem. And it is not because we don’t have the talent out there. Our biggest struggle as the Department of Defense is that we struggle being competitive in the market right now.

We’re targeting the exact same demographics that these tech companies are targeting. And we’re capped at what we can pay our employees by Congress. So we have to compete based on our mission. And so when you have a mission, then you have people who are dedicated. They know that when they’re coming to work, they are solving very important problems, and that the things that they do every single day really, really matter and are going to have a long-term continuous impact on society as a whole.

And so that is the one area that sets us aside from everyone else that’s going after this top-notch talent. And so you have to be really creative, and you have to understand this is what we have to offer people. I can’t offer you $300,000 or $400,000 a year, but I can offer you a purpose. I can offer you a reason to come to work every day. I can offer you the ability to change the face of warfare.

When you talk about offering job candidates an opportunity to change the face of warfare, can you elaborate more specifically on how the department is changing or plans to change the face of warfare? AI is one of the department’s top tech modernization priorities. Tech advances like AI are changing the face and the pace of warfare. As such, the Department of Defense will use AI responsibly as a force multiplier—one that helps us to make decisions faster and more rigorously, to integrate across all domains, and to replace old ways of doing business—from the boardroom to the battlefield.

Historically speaking, in 1914, World War I was fought using two very different battlefield strategies—resulting in infantry with bayonets and cavalry with lances trying to charge machine-gun nests—pitting muscle power against mechanical power. The Department of Defense understands that the information age-equivalent of lancers riding into machine guns is using traditional command, control, and planning processes against an adversary using artificial intelligence—pitting human brainpower against machine speed.

The Department of Defense is seeking to rapidly develop an AI-ready workforce through education, recruitment, and cadre-building. The JAIC has developed and piloted numerous courses, independently and with DoD and academic partners, addressing workforce skills outlined in the DoD AI Education Strategy. We are also sharing educational materials, such as an “AI Adoption Journey” on our website, AI.mil. From a human-capital perspective, my team is focused on bringing those talented AI and data professionals to help the DoD accelerate the adoption of this transformative technology.

You said that artificial intelligence is a huge growth area. Can you elaborate on some of the ways you anticipate AI to grow in the Defense Department, and how you expect the use of AI to grow in the private sector in the coming years? AI has been proven in industry and it has transformed our lives. From things such as playing music playlists, to redefining how logistics and financial sectors operate, to predicting traffic patterns, AI impacts each of us.

It is estimated that AI is expected to add $14 trillion in new economic value to global GDP by 2030. This is huge. The DoD is rapidly working to be able to efficiently leverage this proven technology to modernize our operations. The foundation for this includes the necessary people, platforms, and processes to continuously provide business leaders and warfighters with agile and data-driven solutions. AI will give the DoD the opportunity to make better decisions, to have [a] better understanding of the situation. If we are able to understand the data better, our commanders in the field will be able to make better decisions, decisions that may save lives of our service members on the battlefield, lessen the collateral damage to people and buildings, and save unnecessary use of our resources.

What are you most optimistic about when you think about the growth of AI? What are you least optimistic about? The game-changing potential of AI is to provide decision advantage: The ability to comb through thousands of data points in an instant and see patterns that it would have taken humans countless hours to find.

Developing AI is hard. We have been turning traditional warfare on its head for quite some time. Cyberwarfare is an excellent example of this. For centuries, we needed to be concerned with only planning to defend land, sea, and air. Now, information/digital warfare is a real thing. Our networks are a prime target for our adversaries. And it is never-ending. There is always a new tactic that is being developed. It is hard. However, at the JAIC, we stood up a new organization with the focus of grappling with and advancing this transformative and always evolving technology (even through a pandemic). We have been successful. All of the civilians, military, and contractors that have been pouring their heart and soul into this organization have so much to be proud of. I am a realist and know that we have a long road ahead of us. But what we are doing matters.

How do you extend your recruitment endeavors outside of government circles? A lot of our best talent comes by word of mouth… Because we are the Department of Defense, we have some hiring authorities, but not enough to really, truly be transformative. But we’re still working on that. And it’s really important that [in] everything that we do…we have to be fair and transparent. That’s being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. So I can’t say “I met this dude at a conference and he was absolutely amazing. We need to get this person and we need to hire them.” I tell [candidates] that they have to apply to a job. And every single person is given the exact same opportunity to compete for this job. And sometimes we’ll do “non-selects” if we don’t get the right people.

Non-selects? So I could put a job out and we don’t get the talent that we need. And so we’re willing to wait until the right person comes along. And so we’ll put out the job advertisement for another two weeks. And so we do have a lot of vacancies in our organization, because getting a person who’s willing to take what we can financially offer for them, and getting someone that’s talented and motivated is, is hard. But it’s more important to get the right person than it is to get person.

What kinds of AI innovations do you see becoming mainstream in the HR profession in the coming years? There’s so many different things out there. But no one thing stands out more than another. This is a people-first business, so relying on artificial intelligence to actually read people and know if they’re going to be a good fit for your organization? I don’t know whether I’m quite even at the forefront of adapting artificial intelligence to do a lot of different things. People are important. And so I would leverage artificial intelligence to really go after the security aspect of [HR], to do the background checks. To help be an assistant in decision making, or human-capital innovation.

What do you think about the concept of AI-enabled job-interview technology? I’ve seen sporadic reports about people being interviewed by bots. Are there advantages to that? I actually don’t see any advantage to that at all. I don’t want a machine telling me that this person is going to be the best candidate. And you’ll see, actually, even across the tech industry, none of them use artificial intelligence to choose their people. Choosing your people is more important than any other machine. Look at how the Department of Defense has shifted, too. The Department of Defense used to be focused on platforms and weapons. That was our bread and butter. And now we need to shift our focus on people, because our people are what is going to provide us [with] a competitive advantage against any of our adversaries.

I definitely find it refreshing that you are still in favor of people handling these matters, as opposed to farming it out all out to technology. The higher tech we get, the more important people are. This is coming from an engineer—I really like taking apart machines and fixing them. But people are a much harder problem to solve than any machine is. And no algorithm can replace human judgment. So that’s the reason why choosing people and taking care of them in the human-capital realm is so important.

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