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How the defense industry can compete with Big Tech and win the talent war

When the Air Force opened their new experimental research and development center last year, it wasn’t in a secure windowless basement, hidden away somewhere in the Virginia suburbs. They rented WeWork space in Boston’s trendy North End tech start-up district. And rather than giving the project some arcane, jargon-fueled acronym for a name, they christened it the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab.

If that sounds familiar, then you’re probably a fan of Star Wars—not Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated 1980s space-based missile project, but George Lucas’ ever-popular science fiction film franchise. In the original 1977 film, Han Solo infamously brags about “making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” breaking a longstanding galaxy-wide speed record. Naturally, the new Air Force lab’s logo is shaped like the Millennium Falcon.

Somewhere, someone in the Air Force gets it: the defense industry has an employer brand problem, and they’re determined to fix it.

Centuries-old defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are getting squeezed from all sides. It’s no surprise that PwC’s 2019 Aerospace and Defence Trends report declared the industry to be a “war for talent,” calling out recruiting the right talent as one of the top 5 critical action steps for this sector. Up-and-comers like Space X and Google not only have the kind of cutting-edge technology the military needs, they also have the cultural caché to attract the best and brightest people to build it.

What the old-guard defense contractors may not realize is that they have a secret weapon hidden in their corporate brand language that points the way to cultural transformation through smarter and faster hiring.

How job seekers see you

Individual job posts, not edited-to-perfection-career-sites, are the first contact most candidates have with a potential employer. The distinct language patterns companies use in job posts creates a linguistic fingerprint, showing the world at large what they truly value as a culture.

Job seekers see Jargon when they look at Defense

When looking at the top defense contractors as a group, the distinct phrases they use in their job posts are filled with corporate jargon that has been shown to slow down hiring time, as shown in orange on the chart below.

Bar graphs showing the distribution of language that slows down or speeds up hiring in Tech and Defense industries

Publicly posted job listings from the top ten US defense contractors (by $ obligated in 2018), compared to the top ten public tech companies (by revenue)

While tech companies tend to “shoot for the moon,” defense companies are inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot with the language they choose to put in their job ads. In fact, more than one-third of the defense industry’s most distinctive phrases are negative phrases: language that has been shown to fill jobs more slowly, like the phrase “interfaces with.”

Orange phrase "interfaces with" is used 5 times more often in Defense, green phrase "groundbreaking" is used 131 times more often in Tech

While any government contractor has to follow strict hiring practices, none of those guidelines mention the need to bore job seekers.

There are many unique challenges to hiring as a defense contractor: cyclical hiring, high attrition rates, security clearance restrictions limiting the talent pool (along with a still-massive backlog), and heavy STEM talent competition from tech corporations.

Reinvigorating stale language in job posts is one of the few actions contractors can take to immediately start having a positive impact on hiring outcomes.

Defense has the right words (but doesn’t use them)

It’s not that defense contractors don’t know how to use inspiring language. Their career sites are full of language that has been shown to bring in more qualified candidates, but that language isn’t filtering down to individual job posts.

For example, “dedicated” is used in Northrop Grumman’s core values, and it also has a positive impact on hiring, but the company uses that phrase in only 2% of their job posts. General Dynamics uses “we believe” to describe their ethos, which statistically would help them fill jobs faster, but only 0.4% of their job posts include that language.

Green phrases used by Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics with impact and frequency

Distinctive language that improves hiring performance is rarely used in defense industry job listings

Defense contractors can do themselves a favor by simply putting the language on their career sites into their job posts, showcasing their company culture to individual job seekers.

Winning the war for talent, one job post at a time

Defense contractors need to illustrate what working in defense is actually like in every requisition, so candidates can start to see themselves in the roles.

Lockheed Martin, for example, has “Together, let’s change the world for the better,” as their main career page tagline and they carry this language through to 84% of their job posts.

Sentence with green phrase used by Lockheed Martin with impact and frequency notated

In fact, Lockheed Martin consistently uses brand-forward language that connects each open requisition to larger company values, positioning themselves as “a leading technology innovation company,” while also embracing more defense-focused language like “missions,” “critical,” and “dangerous.”

Treating each job description as an advertisement like this is the only way to appeal to candidates that have never before considered a career in the industry.

Winning the war for talent does not mean mimicking the language of Silicon Valley: it means embracing the power of words to attract the right people.

Sample hiring language report with a button to request a free report to see how your company sounds

Distinct phrases were taken from publicly available job posts published between JanuaryJune 2019, comparing median phrase usage between top ten companies in each industry.

Defense companies used: BAE, Boeing, General Dynamics, General Electric, Huntington Ingalls Industries, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and United Technologies (chosen by largest Department of Defense(DoD) dollars obligated in 2018).

Technology companies used: Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Intel, and Microsoft (chosen by largest 2018 revenue as listed by Fortune 500).

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