Military looks for ways to bring in cyber talent at better salaries

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said $37,000 may be sufficient for Hill staffers answering the phone, but is much too low for military cyber specialists.

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Low entry-level pay isn't helping the armed services in their quest to attract and retain top cyber talent.

Representatives across the military named salary as a significant barrier to recruiting and retaining cyber talent at a March 13 hearing of the Cybersecurity subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

U.S. Fleet Cyber Commander Vice Adm. Michael Gilday said that while the services' direct commission programs are designed to attract the tech industry's best, the $37,000 salary that comes with being a second lieutenant does not.

"We are not competitive with the private sector in terms of competing for that kind of talent and we want to go after it," he said.

Gilday also said "rigid guidelines" governing the civilian force have become prohibitive in terms of the incentives workers can be offered -- namely 10 percent hiring raises and relocation bonuses that still don't meet the salary levels of the private sector. The military will need additional authorities to do so.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that a base salary of $37,000 was appropriate for Capitol Hill staffers "answering phones," but not for military cyber forces.

"We have enough trouble competing with the private sector without adding in some of the challenges that are inherent in the current way that we develop leadership in our military," she said.

In addition to base pay, service members get allotments for food, lodging, health care and other services. But that total compensation still pales in comparison to what many companies can offer, so the military is trying to find ways to give cyber workers from the tech sector credit for their years to boost pay.

Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, Army Cyber Commander and nominee to be head of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, said failure to translate cyber workers' past civilian work experience into an appropriate military rank with commensurate pay is hampering recruitment and retention.

"What we're facing right now is an inability to grant constructive credit," he said, "We are limited to bringing them in as a first lieutenant and so we would like greater flexibility on that."

Nakasone added that measuring constructive credit to allow tech workers to enter the military at a higher rank and pay would help draw people from emerging and important fields like data analytics and artificial intelligence. The miliary has similar programs in place to attract doctors and other medical professionals.

Maj. Gen. Lori Reynolds, commander of the Marine Corps' Cyber Command, said the USMC established a new military occupational specialty (MOS) directed at targeting incentives for the cyber workforce.

That alone, she said, "is going to maximize the bonus structure that we have inside the Marine Corps to … get after and retain some of those special talent."

But Reynolds said dollars aren't always the right incentive. "In some cases, ma'am, it's not pay. Sometimes it's education and sometimes it's certificates...So for us it's being able to target those incentives."

For the Air Force, cyber commander Maj. Gen. Chris Weggeman said the direct commission program was a good start, with the Air Force sending its first two applicants to officer training school in 15 days to become second lieutenants.

Relatedly, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, which makes policy recommendations for military conscription, is looking for ways to get cyber specialists into the ranks at time of need. A little-noticed Feb. 16 request for comments in the Federal Register indicates that the military may be looking to modify selective service rules to allow for the drafting of cyber pros and other key STEM professionals "without regard to age or sex."