Defense firms jump into new talent pool: laid-off tech workers

When Amazon laid off Ryan Tran in March after just six months, the IT specialist decided it was time to follow his dreams.

Along with his wife, Tran co-founded a startup company in the defense industry called Ares Enterprise, which focuses on building out a roadmap of what technologies and resources the Department of Defense should deploy.

“It’s like, you want to be controlling your own destiny. What better way to control your own destiny than owning a company?” he said.

Tran joins hundreds of other tech workers who are pivoting back to the defense sector, or joining it for the first time, amid mass layoffs across the tech industry.

Last year, companies working in the aerospace, guided missile, space vehicle manufacturing and propulsion unit sectors all experienced a significant bump in growth, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

That comes as hundreds of tech companies, including Meta, Amazon and Microsoft, have laid off between 130,000 and 185,000 workers so far this year, according to estimates.

Available data and other reporting from The Hill indicate that defense companies have been on something of a tech hiring spree. Recruiters are looking for experienced software engineers, cybersecurity experts and other high-skilled workers whose skills easily translate to defense technology.

“For decades, the best and brightest in engineering weren’t always keen to enter the defense space,” said Andrew Wargofchik, a spokesperson for defense tech firm Epirus, noting his company grew by 36 percent last year.

But now, the layoffs — combined with heightened global tensions — appear to be shifting the perspective for some tech workers.

Wargofchik added it was “undeniable that current events, especially the war in Ukraine, are inspiring the next generation of tech leaders to pursue a career in the defense space to make an impact in the global defense of democracy.”

The Defense Department has long indicated the U.S. will need more tech workers to defend its security interests.

John Sherman, the chief information officer at the Pentagon, said at the TechNet Cyber conference on Wednesday it was vital to hire workers with the capabilities and “eagerness” to advance the U.S. on emerging technologies.

“Our U.S. industry is our secret sauce,” he said at the conference in Baltimore, explaining the U.S. needs to “have a workforce that looks like America with all the innovation, the surliness we bring to the fight from all corners of this great country.”

KPMG, a global firm that provides audit, tax and advisory services, estimates in new research sent to The Hill that there are between 40,000 to 50,000 open jobs for tech-related skills in the aerospace and defense industry.

These skills include software engineering, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud, machine learning and data solutions.

Initial data reveals a trend of hiring displaced tech workers for these skills, said Todd Dubner, the principal of global strategy group at KPMG in the U.S., who has researched the trend.

Dubner said he expects the trend to “continue and grow.”

“It is clear from our study that A&D is looking for the skills that are currently being let go from the tech sector,” he said in an email interview. “While our data lags the market by a few months, there is a clear start to a trend of movement from tech to A&D.”

According to Dubner, tech workers are finding jobs in the defense industry that match their skills and fit with their desire to “make an impact” in the world.

On top of that, the defense sector is more secure than the tech industry, has strong training opportunities and allows employees to move up in the company, he said.

Ryan Tseng, co-founder of defense tech firm Shield AI, is thrilled about the influx — and is something of an early trendsetter.

After years of working at the wireless telecommunications company Qualcomm, Tseng decided he had to do something else.

“I felt like I was losing the fire in my belly,” Tseng said. “I was not fired up about what I was doing, and putting in hard work when you don’t think it matters to the world becomes challenging.”

In 2015, Tseng co-founded Shield AI, which specializes in creating artificial intelligence for military applications, including to pilot aircraft.

Tseng said he has seen his company hire about 100 workers in the past five months. He said global events have put the role of defense firms into perspective for American tech workers.

“Russia invading Ukraine has brought many people around to this idea, this notion that security and stability are not assured,” he said. “It’s through deliberate work by amazing people.”

Mass layoffs in the tech industry began last year as inflation skyrocketed, interest rates increased and a return to an in-person, pre-pandemic lifestyle led to revenue declines for tech companies. The job losses only accelerated in the fall and winter.

As stock prices plunged late last year, Meta announced it was laying off 11,000 workers, about a month after Microsoft’s trim of 1,000 workers in October. Amazon also said it would slash 10,000 employees last year.

Amid the layoffs, the private aerospace industry jumped from about 484,000 workers in January 2022 to roughly 505,000 in September, according to the BLS. From 2019 to 2021, average annual employment was declining in the sector.

That bump was largely consistent across industries working within defense production, including for guided missile and space vehicle manufacturing, which hiked up from 71,184 in January to 75,569 in September.

The trend is likely to continue as tech layoffs show no signs of slowing down this year.

Google in January said it was slashing 6 percent of its workforce, and Zoom said it was laying off 15 percent of its employees. Meta also began cutting 10,000 jobs this spring.

Impacted tech workers on LinkedIn are advertising themselves under an “open to work” label as they vigorously search for new career paths in a time of high inflation.

About a third of those impacted by the recent wave of tech industry layoffs have indicated they are more interested in heading over to the defense industry now than they were a year ago, according to a Morning Consult poll released in March.

Respondents cited availability and global uncertainty, and the Morning Consult survey found about half of tech workers were OK with their technology being used on the battlefield.

The Hill reached out to about a dozen defense companies for this story. Five of them confirmed an ongoing, major hiring surge or substantial growth in the past year.

A spokesperson for Boeing said the company’s workforce grew by 15,000 last year, driven by both engineering and manufacturing. The company plans to hire another 10,000 employees this year, including software engineers.

Kei Bullock, the vice president of talent acquisition at Northrop Grumman, said the company hired 16,000 people in 2022, including tech positions, and will continue to hire for tech jobs this year.

Northrop Grumman led the industry team for NASA’s groundbreaking James Webb Space Telescope, which Bullock said “reinforced” the company’s “position as a technology innovator.”

Some defense firms are now specifically targeting laid-off tech workers in hiring campaigns.

Lockheed Martin said it was hiring tech workers but still has thousands of tech-related job openings. The Bethesda, Md., based company created a landing page specifically for tech workers. And John Heyliger, its vice president of talent acquisition, wrote a personalized message to tech workers in a LinkedIn post over the holidays.

Tran, who worked for a small defense firm before he was laid off by Amazon, said he is investing his money in his new startup, which is still trying to get up off the ground and only has three employees, including the founders.

But he expressed optimism that he would succeed, saying tech and defense were his “bread and butter.”

“You build one piece at a time,” he said, “and then hopefully, those pieces become something big.”

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