Tech Workers Take Another Look at Defense in Light of Layoffs

Amid financial and geopolitical uncertainty, tech workers are now more likely to consider defense work than they were a year ago, especially in AI and cloud computing
Graphic conveying a Tech worker in defense
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
March 17, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • A third of tech workers (34%) say they are more likely than they were a year ago to apply their skills to military projects, citing the nature of available opportunities and global uncertainty. Nearly half of them (48%) support their work being used in combat.

  • These are crucial figures for employers, given that 60% of all tech workers are currently looking for or open to new opportunities. When considering a new position, job security is now just as important a factor to them as salary and benefits.

  • This creates an opportunity for government agencies to directly hire tech talent, and they should take pains to promote projects that align with workers’ interests as well as their values.

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As tech’s pandemic-era hiring boom reverses trend, tech workers find themselves prioritizing job security above all else. This could create an opening for less traditional employers of tech workers, like government agencies and defense contractors, to snatch up top talent.

That’s what a new Morning Consult survey conducted among hundreds of tech workers in software development, IT and product development roles reveals. The research also finds that shifting trends in tech worker preferences could be a boon for companies in emerging tech, such as artificial intelligence, and entities that can deliver on job stability, work-life balance and compelling projects.

One-third of tech workers are now more willing to give defense tech a chance

The Department of Defense and its contractors have struggled in recent years to attract top coding talent, especially when workers were able to secure more lucrative jobs with less red tape at large tech companies. In the context of layoffs and a desire for stability and work-life balance, government agencies and contractors are in a position to capitalize on these evolving trends.

Roughly one-third of tech workers (34%) say they are more likely to consider applying their talents to military projects than they were one year ago.

Compelling Projects Pull Workers, While Political and Economic Insecurity Pushes Them to Consider Defense

How likely tech workers are to consider defense work compared with a year ago
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Survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2023, among 441 U.S. tech workers, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

The shift in attitudes can be attributed to a handful of factors, including tech’s recent headline-making layoffs. One is a perceived improvement in the number of compelling projects in the defense space. Of the workers who say they are now more interested in military work, the most commonly cited reasons were the possibility to work on interesting projects (38%) and financial considerations (33%), although sizable shares also pointed to general global insecurity (30%), the COVID-19 pandemic (29%) and geopolitical tensions involving Russia and China (27% and 28%, respectively).

Tech workers prioritize job security in light of layoffs

Over 285,000 workers have reportedly been laid off in tech since the beginning of 2022. As a result, 3 in 5 tech workers are now actively or passively looking for a new job.

This means job-hunting is likely to be much more competitive in terms of securing a new role with a competitive salary and benefits package. For those hiring now, it’s an opportunity to pick up talent that would otherwise be difficult to find, especially as workers sour toward companies conducting layoffs.

3 in 5 Tech Workers Surveyed Are Actively or Passively Job Hunting

The share of technology workers who said they were …
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Survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2023, among 441 tech workers, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Worker preferences draw a road map for tech hiring managers. Job stability is now just as important to tech workers as salary, benefits and work-life balance when they’re considering a new job. Tech workers also have a sense of which employers are best positioned to deliver on these motivating factors.

Tech Workers Are Primarily Looking for Security, Salary and Work-Life Balance

Share of technology workers who said each of the following factors is “very important” when considering a new job:
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Survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2023, among 441 U.S. tech workers, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points.

Despite widespread layoffs, many tech workers still want to work in the industry. They say large technology companies are best positioned to deliver on salary (40%), benefits (37%) and mission (31%). But the opportunity here is that tech is a broad term, and many companies that may not be considered “tech” in the traditional sense nonetheless do highly technical work, and can position themselves as attractive to technical talent by highlighting projects that may interest them.

Tech workers want to work in cloud computing, analytics, AI

Tech workers want more from their employers than job security, work-life balance and good pay. The areas in which tech workers want to work are important, too. Cloud computing garners the most interest as a field, with business software, big data analytics and artificial intelligence not far behind. The latter has been dominating tech headlines lately, spurred by ChatGPT and the “AI war” between Microsoft and Google as they race to integrate AI into their search tools.

A recent Morning Consult survey showed that there may be no group more excited about the prospect of AI and how it will change our lives than those who work in tech.

Tech Workers Are Far More Interested in Cloud Computing and AI Than Government, Defense and Civil Engineering

Share of technology workers who selected each of the following as a field of interest:
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Survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2023, among 441 U.S. tech workers, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points.

For workers who want to use AI, cloud computing and big data to solve huge problems, the Pentagon has a long wish list of projects both on and off the battlefield. In Ukraine, the use of drone swarms by both sides has offered military strategists a glimpse of the decentralized, AI-powered battlefield of the future, leading to a focus on procuring a wide range of dual-use technologies from the commercial sector. The DOD is also investing in bespoke solutions, such as the roughly $9 billion cloud computing contract it awarded to Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Oracle.

Tech workers are open to their projects being used on the battlefield, with some differences by political affiliation

The relationship between Silicon Valley and the U.S. military-industrial complex has been a complicated one. Despite the defense-driven birth of Silicon Valley in the 1970s, technology companies in recent years have sometimes shied away from bidding on government and defense projects. Amid cutthroat competition for top talent and the rise of stakeholder capitalism, much of this reticence stems from employee activism against defense contracts at tech giants.

But those opposed to any and all defense applications of their work are a vocal minority. A plurality of U.S. tech workers surveyed were in favor of their employer seeking defense contracts, regardless of whether their work would be used in combat. About one-fifth of tech workers surveyed were categorically opposed to their employer seeking defense contracts, while larger minorities across the political spectrum predicated their support on the contracts not being used on the battlefield.

Nearly Half of Tech Workers Are OK With Their Work Being Used in Combat

Shares who said whether they support their employer bidding for government defense contracts
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2023, among 441 tech workers, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-5 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Evidence that ideological factors are at play can be seen in splits by party affiliation. Tech workers who identified as Republicans were more willing to work on projects for use in combat (54%). Republican techies in our sample also primarily attributed the recent increase in their interest in defense work to concerns about possible conflict with China, in line with other research on foreign policy preferences by political party.

For tech giants, it’s their (war) game to lose

Big Tech has the incumbents’ advantage in recruiting top talent, and it appears such companies may encounter less internal resistance to plying their trade with the military than before. They can reinforce this trend by highlighting the important role technology plays in high-stakes geopolitical competition with authoritarian adversaries. Nevertheless, a large minority of tech workers are still wary of seeing their work deployed on the battlefield. This is a downside risk for tech companies and a potential niche for either legacy military contractors that can rebrand themselves as technology companies or bespoke defense tech companies that manage to navigate the arcane procurement process.

There will not be a massive voluntary exodus of workers from the technology sector. That said, workers are now prioritizing job security and benefits along with other factors like pay. Nontraditional employers of tech workers that can deliver in those areas while offering workers the chance to tackle compelling projects in AI and cloud computing stand to benefit. Government agencies should see this moment as an opportunity to directly hire tech talent, and they should take pains to promote projects that align with workers’ interests, not just their values.

A headshot photograph of Jordan Marlatt
Jordan Marlatt
Lead Tech Analyst

Jordan Marlatt previously worked at Morning Consult as a lead tech analyst.

A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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