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  • STEM education is a vital part of attracting a cyber-savvy workforce for civil and military service. Credit: Somjai Jathieng/Shutterstock
     STEM education is a vital part of attracting a cyber-savvy workforce for civil and military service. Credit: Somjai Jathieng/Shutterstock

Cyber Leaders Get Creative in Attracting Talent

The Cyber Edge
May 18, 2021
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

Anyone can recruit cyber experts or future experts.

Every cyber warrior can be a cyber recruiter, according to panelists at the AFCEA TechNet Augusta Virtual Event Series.
The United States faces a severe shortage in cyber personnel and in students willing to enter the cyber workforce. That shortage is even more acute in the government and the military, where talented personnel are often recruited by industry for higher pay and other incentives.
But every cyber warrior can serve double duty as a cyber recruiter, according to Brig. Gen. Bradley Pyburn, USAF, deputy commander, Sixteenth Air Force (Air Forces Cyber). “None of us should miss the opportunity to be an ambassador. We can’t think about recruiting as some far-off station in a strip mall somewhere. Every time we interact with folks, we have a chance to demystify service to our nation and show them how awesome it is.”
The general relayed a story from his days as a lieutenant colonel when he was recruited to read a story at his daughter’s school. It just happened to be shortly after the release of a Transformers movie, which included a number of characters in the military. “I just happened to wear my uniform, and I couldn’t figure out why the kids wouldn’t stop staring at me. It was just more convenient for me to wear my uniform. It was accidental, but it was masterful,” he said.
The intrigued students asked a lot of questions about his military service. “I was able to talk about service to our nation and technology to third graders. We just can’t miss those opportunities,” he added.

Gen. Pyburn also happens to live a few miles from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which he described as one of the best cyber schools in the nation. He indicated he is tempted to spend a lot of time at the school. “I want to go down to the parking lot with a sign and say, ‘We want you to come work with us, and you’re going to have an amazing life and amazing journey.’”

Jeffrey Jones, vice director, command, control, communications and computers/cyber, and deputy chief information officer, Joint Staff, also indicated that it’s never too early to interest kids in a cyber profession. His second grandson, he reported, already knows how to use an iPhone and iPad. “The earlier we can get them started, the better. My grandson is almost 2 years old. He can already work an iPhone or an iPad. Knows to swipe up, knows how to swipe things away. It’s awesome,” he said. “I told my daughter last weekend we’re going to get him started in coding classes as soon as we can because I want him to learn how to code as soon as possible. That’s how we really help build the bench.”

Jones also voiced support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. “The more we can sponsor these programs out in the communities, the better off we’re going to be. I am all for reaching out in those STEM programs and getting people started sooner and faster.”

The Air Force actually has done well recruiting military members since the 9/11 attacks, Gen. Pyburn noted, but the service struggles to attract civilian employees. “On the civilian side, I think we can do much better. We have to be able to communicate to our civilian workforce what a successful path looks like, how we develop you along that path and the different kinds of opportunities you can have.”

The general recommended the military get creative in allowing the cyber force to experience an array of opportunities. “One of the things I really think we ought to explore is how do we give opportunities—especially when we talk about younger generations—to allow you to transition between government, whether it’s civil service or military service, and the private sector and then come back easily.”

Jones emphasized the need for organizations to allow cyber personnel to pursue professional development opportunities as well. “There is never a good time for your personnel to attend professional development activities. Period. But if you don’t invest the time in your employees now, our mission will suffer, and you’re going to spend more time later trying to figure out how to replace that person when they leave.”

Manuel Hermosilla, executive director, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. TENTH Fleet, said the military needs a more structured career process for civilians. “It’s not very well defined. There are folks who will manage through it, and there are folks who are very talented who may not end up managing well through it. That happens.”

Hermosilla did, however, report some success in attracting cyber personnel over the past year despite challenges posed by the pandemic. “Over the past year, we have significantly increased our civilian hiring effort by over 50 percent compared to the previous year. … We’ve made great strides in bringing on folks through the Cyber Excepted Service. Just over the past six months, we’ve shelled out almost $150,000 worth of incentives to bring folks on, whereas over the past year, I think it was just over $100,000.”

Ronald Pontius, deputy to the commanding general, U.S. Army Cyber Command, said the military could use more cyber competitions to attract talented workers. “The individuals that excel in this domain, they don’t do it 9 to 5, or 7 to 5, whatever the case may be. This is also their hobby, what they do on nights and weekends. They are very engaged,” he stated. “What we could do better is probably be engaged with greater Capture the Flag competitions to identify talent that we could possibly recruit into the military or civilian side where they can do things, in some cases the only place where they can do it legally.”

Gen. Pyburn concluded the event by emphasizing the importance of attracting tech-savvy talent. “China produces about eight times as many STEM graduate as we produce year after year. We don’t want that to play out forever. Ultimately, our human talent, and our beliefs and our ideas are what will win the day,” he said.

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