WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s cybersecurity mission is facing a classic supply and demand problem: There’s a nationwide shortage of tech talent and an oversupply of jobs.
This leaves the Pentagon starved of the cyber-sentries needed to defend its digital networks as the nation’s top computer scientists and software engineers often choose careers in the private sector that offer fat salaries and generous benefits.
“They are so talented and in such high demand,” then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said of the Pentagon’s red team members, cybersecurity experts who test and defend Defense Department computer networks, at a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in May. “We really get out-recruited.”
If there was ever a time the Pentagon would not want to lose the recruiting battle with the private sector, it’s now. The Chinese, Russians and Iranians have all hacked important aspects of American society since 2016. Moscow and Tehran targeted U.S. elections, and Beijing has hacked U.S. defense contractors, highlighting the Pentagon’s need for cyber-defenders.
Offensively, the Pentagon also will increasingly need tech expertise. The military soon plans to integrate artificial intelligence technology into its weapons systems, an endeavor that would give war machines advanced capabilities and rely on yet-to-be-implemented 5G wireless internet technology.
These tasks are monumental. Some of them might be done by entities on the Pentagon’s periphery, like defense contractors. Others, like those done by the red teams, must be carried out by the government.
Capitol Hill knows this, and is nudging the Defense Department to create a pipeline from top U.S. universities to the Pentagon.
But that pipeline will need to offer strong incentives to steer recruits with some of the highest-earning potential of all college students away from the private sector.
“Students have many choices these days,” Sally Luzader, manager of corporate relations at Purdue University’s Department of Computer Science, said in an email. “So the top candidates, especially, have the luxury of being very selective.”
Those graduates, sought by massive tech companies, startups and even Wall Street, often choose between multiple lucrative job offers at salary levels reserved for veteran government employees.
“It’s hard to beat the pay,” said Sibin Mohan, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, whose 2018 computer engineering graduates — the talent the Pentagon struggles to recruit and retain — earned an average starting salary of $99,741.
That salary level for 20-something computer nerds rivals the top level of what some government workers earn in the Washington metropolitan area.
The government pays its employees according to its “GS” salary table, a 15-tier pay scale with 10 different salaries at each grade. The average Illinois computer engineering graduate from 2018 earns $569 more per year than a GS-13 Step 1 employee in the Washington area, with the maximum amount a GS can make in the capital being $166,500 per year.
West Coast companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Uber are recruiting these students well before they graduate, and the climate is part of the draw. A lot of people want to live in California, “as opposed to, say, living in D.C.,” Mohan said.
But it is smaller tech companies that are escalating the bidding war.
“Startups are ready to pay extra money just to attract students away from some of these big names,” Mohan said.
And back on the East Coast, Wall Street quantitative trading businesses are showering computer geniuses with cash to help shave lucrative nanoseconds off transaction times.
In recruiting tech talent, the government simply can’t outbid the private sector. Luckily for the Pentagon, some of the country’s brightest college graduates aren’t solely motivated by money.
“I know students who have had offers from the Wall Street firms, a decent amount of money, and turned it down because they were not excited about it,” Mohan said. “If the government agencies show them the cool work that can be done, then some students might be attracted to it.”
So-called “cool” work for recent grads could very well be their deciding factor between jobs. Those jobs could include the short-staffed red teams at the Pentagon and other cybersecurity roles across the government.
“Students often want to work on ‘cool’ projects,” Luzader said.
William Crumpler, a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has studied the federal cyber workforce gap, said government cyber programs need to “focus on the coolness factor.”
By this logic, the Pentagon would do well to shed its stiff, top-down image, which some veterans say is a myth.
“I’ve been lots of places that are not the military that were way more rigid than my experience both at the (U.S. Naval Academy) and onboard a submarine,” J.P. Mellor, a Naval Academy graduate and head of the computer science and software engineering program at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, said. “There was plenty of room (in the military) for my creativity.”
Mellor left the Navy decades ago, but sees ample room for innovation on the Pentagon’s red teams.
“That’s a super-creative activity,” Mellor said. “You have to try figure out what could go wrong here or how can I turn it on its head?”
Mohan agrees, saying working on teams tasked with testing network security — hacking, essentially — “becomes a bit of an art and not completely a science.”
One reason — perhaps the main reason — the Pentagon has trouble filling these jobs is its sales pitch, or lack of one.
Mellor couldn’t recall the Defense Department recruiting on Rose-Hulman’s Terre Haute, Ind., campus, but said his students often intern and later start careers at the companies with structured internship programs that recruit the students in person.
A provision in the House version of the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill would direct the Pentagon to hire like private companies, saying the Pentagon should work with universities to recruit cyber-skilled students during their junior and senior years, giving them time to complete the requisite security clearance.
“That would totally do it,” Mellor said. “I think that’s a great strategy.” But Mellor would advise the Pentagon not to wait until the students’ junior years.
Many Rose-Hulman students, like those at other universities, often start internships after their freshman year, return to school and spread the word about their apprenticeships, sometimes recruiting classmates to apply to the company where they worked.
The result is job security before graduation, with more than 90% of Rose-Hulman students accepting full-time job offers before their senior year final exams, Mellor said.
So for the military to win the future wars in ethereal digital conflict zones, they must first win on another competitive battlefield: the college career fair.