The State of U.S. Technology Talent: A Whole-of-Nation Approach to Bolstering the Tech Talent Pool | Markle
The State of U.S. Technology Talent: A Whole-of-Nation Approach to Bolstering the Tech Talent Pool | Markle

The State of U.S. Technology Talent: A Whole-of-Nation Approach to Bolstering the Tech Talent Pool

June 8, 2023 - Written By Hannah Kelley | Blog Archive


Technology leadership is a key driver of global power. While massive U.S. tech industry layoffs have dominated recent headlines, this spike in workforce cuts is more a feature of volatile market concerns than actual technical need. Looking beyond the current market cycle, the U.S. economy has a shortfall, rather than a surplus, of tech talent in the long term. To maximize its workforce for current and future technical needs, the United States must invest in a whole-of-nation approach to bolstering its critical and emerging tech talent pool.

The federal government is already mobilizing to increase U.S. domestic tech talent. Recent legislation such as the CHIPS and Science Act—aimed at reinvigorating U.S. semiconductor leadership by spurring research and development and incentivizing chip production—recognizes the importance of strengthening the domestic workforce to achieve national strategic goals. Among other measures, the CHIPS and Science Act established and appropriated funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) CHIPS for America Workforce and Education Fund to help support the U.S. microelectronics workforce.

Recognizing that federal government action alone was not enough, the CHIPS and Science Act authorized the creation of regional innovation hubs to implement targeted innovation strategies developed by a coordinated group of stakeholders, including “local, state, tribal, and federal government entities, institutions of higher education, the private sector, economic development organizations, labor organizations, nonprofit organizations, and community organizations.” The Act also called for aggregated workforce data analysis to inform efforts toward greater talent diversity.

While these provisions are a great first step, maintaining a skilled workforce in the United States must be prioritized across all critical technology sectors as a whole-of-nation effort. The United States cannot achieve and sustain its global technological leadership without adequately cultivating its most valuable resource—its innovators—and mobilizing the entire nation’s resources to do so. Federal government action must be complemented by concrete measures taken at both the state and local levels to harness the nation’s domestic talent.

A key feature of this whole-of-nation approach is maximizing U.S. state and local talent ecosystems. This was discussed during the CNAS Technology Policy Lab on Harnessing America’s Domestic Talent Pool and Creating Job Opportunities, made possible with the generous support of the Markle Foundation. The following insights were informed by a session of that Lab, which featured the Cal Poly California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) as a case study for how institutions can help facilitate better coordination of resources among state and local governments, industry, and civil society.

As part of a polytechnic, the California Cybersecurity Institute leverages a “Learn by Doing” pedagogy and works with several state agencies to help reskill, upskill, and build digital literacy across the state, with a special focus on educators, state workers, and the California National Guard (CNG). Key insights from this case study include:

First, strong partnerships between research institutions and state agencies can help foster digital literacy to better assess and address critical technology issues at the federal, state, and local levels. The California Cybersecurity Institute is a contributing consortium member of the California Advanced Defense Ecosystems and National Consortia Effort (CADENCE), funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and focused on strengthening national security innovation and manufacturing in the state. Specifically, CADENCE provides training, work-based learning programs, and education curricula for technical assistance programs. Additionally, with its unique proximity to Vandenberg Space Force Base, the California Cybersecurity Institute is working with a variety of federal and state partners to develop a workforce pipeline program focused on clearances for students and faculty. This will also culminate in the building of a secure facility where the state’s critical tech talent can obtain and maintain government clearances. This partnership model helps streamline California tech talent into U.S. national security jobs.

Second, Industry should pursue more regional cohesion and resource pooling within and across states to complement and amplify state and local efforts. The regional innovation hubs included in the CHIPS and Science Act will offer a great platform for this, but they need sustained funding to adequately capture diverse tech talent across a state’s programs and institutions. Consultative public-private partnerships can particularly help mitigate the challenges that firms face in navigating complex state-level policies. State and local government representatives can help translate process requirements and connect industry funding to a community’s most critical projects, skill development programs, and broader civil society efforts to cultivate a more diverse workforce.

For example in 2019, non-profit Project Cyber and MOSTe, a community-based mentoring, scholarship, and college-access organization, co-hosted a cybersecurity workshop for 53 middle and high school girls. Held in Los Angeles, California, the girls were introduced to a range of cybersecurity-related careers through experiential learning and expert panel discussions. Similarly, at the California Cybersecurity Institute, the partnership through CADENCE has provided Cal Poly students access to a career mapping application called Journeys Map. The application helps students understand the different pathways they need to pursue to enter the cyber/tech space.  While both are small scale, these efforts are indicative of the kind of projects that can help expand the pool of tech talent, advance opportunities, and increase diversity in the tech field. With more funding, similar opportunities could be extended to more underrepresented groups.

Third, U.S. federal, state, and local governments should support creative training solutions in the near-term to engage new talent, while continuing to support existing experts in the field. For example, the California Cybersecurity Institute has a number of outreach and early STEM education initiatives including Cyber to Schools, GenCyber Summer Teacher Camp, and its flagship offering, the Space Grand Challenge. Using gamification, the Challenge tests middle and high school students’ cybersecurity and IT skills, as well as space knowledge. These games are built by current Cal Poly students, many of whom were previous participants of past challenges. Although participants are primarily drawn from California, the program is open to the entire country. Sponsorships are available as needed and players are encouraged to return from year to year to continue developing their skillsets.

The California Cybersecurity Institute likewise provides university students with the opportunity to work with and learn from industry experts via supervised, student-led senior projects, while faculty are afforded unique cyber related resources to conduct their own independent research.

And finally, U.S. federal, state, and local governments, together with private industry, should reevaluate tech-related job listings and interview processes to account for alternative methods of acquiring skills beyond traditional certification measures such as STEM degrees. The monetary cost and scheduling demands necessary to obtain competitive undergraduate and post-graduate STEM degrees often stand as significant barriers to entry for underrepresented socio-demographic job applicants—many of whom are otherwise qualified in terms of both hands-on experience and demonstrated ability. While a more affordable and accessible U.S. higher education model is needed, critical technology employers in both the U.S. public and private sectors should explore how other credentialing models—such as documented apprenticeship programs and online training certificates—could likewise convey sufficient career aptitude for certain roles. This would better support tech workforce diversity in the near-term by leveraging more of the United States’ existing, untapped tech talent.

Robust cooperation between tech talent stakeholders is important because America’s competitive edge will erode without adequate talent stores to drive sustained innovation forward. Despite how recent layoffs may be perceived, the United States continues to face a significant talent shortage across critical technology areas as companies struggle to fill and maintain key positions—be they managerial, operational, or technical—to lead in a rapidly evolving technological landscape.

Federal, state, and local governments, research institutions, civil society, and private industry each play a critical role in capturing and developing the U.S. technology workforce. They must work together to build up U.S. tech talent for current and future needs.


Hannah Kelley is a Research Assistant with the Technology and National Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where she studies U.S. national technology strategy and international cooperation on responsible technology use. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and a Master’s degree in international policy from the University of Georgia.

This commentary was informed by working group discussions at the Center for a New American Security and was made possible with the generous support of the Markle Foundation.