Air Force aims to turn cyber into a career

Thursday - 3/1/2012, 5:15am EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The military has known for years that it will never be able to compete with the private sector when it comes to paying cyber experts.

Pay, however, is not the only factor that keeps a soldier, sailor, airman or marine in the military. The Air Force is banking on the idea that job satisfaction might be a retention tool that overcomes the pay gap between what an airman might be able to get from industry and what he or she earns from Uncle Sam.

"The money's better on the outside. We get that," Skip Runyan, the technical director for the 39th Information Operations Squadron, the Air Force's main cyber training unit, said in an interview with Federal News Radio.

"But when you're working with the right authorities here, you can do a lot of things that can get you put in jail in the private sector," he said.

Having the legal authority to hack into computer systems is one thing. Getting to continuously employ those skills throughout an entire career is another matter. Apart from pay, it's one of the main problems the military has struggled with among its uniformed cyber experts so far. Even when a servicemember is trained to be a top-notch cyber warrior, he or she might only serve one tour of duty before his or her service shuffles them along to a non-cyber job.

The problem with that, Runyan said: They get bored.

"Part of the reason that folks are getting out is that, right, wrong or indifferent, we give people one tour in cyber or in the operational side of things, and then we tell them that their next tour is going to be pulling wire somewhere," he said. "They say, 'Thanks, but I'll go work for a civilian corporation and keep doing what I love and what I do best.' We want to give them a career path and give them an incentive to stay in the Air Force."

The Air Force has done just that. Roughly two years ago, it created career paths for both officers and enlisted personnel specifically intended to let cyber experts stay in the field throughout their military careers.

"The approach in the Air Force is really second to none among the services," said Eric Bassel, director of the SANS Institute, during a Wednesday panel discussion at AFCEA's Homeland Security Conference in Washington.

"The Army's got some really amazing stuff happening for their warrant officers. That's good, but it's a small fraction of their workforce," he said. "They've got nothing for their commissioned officers or their enlisted, which is 90 percent of their workforce. There's no way for a lieutenant to see their way up to colonel and keep doing what they love."

True enough, said Maj. T.J. O'Connor, who handles a multitude of technology issues for the Army's Special Forces Command. He recalled a soldier he recently taught in an instructional program, who wound up captaining the winning team for NSA's National Cyber Defense Competition.

"He successfully stopped NSA from breaking into his network, and not only that, he broke back into their network to get a step ahead of them," he said. "But there's absolutely no career track for that individual in today's Army for him to go forward and do what he is very good at doing." That Army officer is still in the military, but is now serving as an armored platoon leader, O'Connor said.

That's the type of situation the Air Force's cyber career programs aim to avoid, Runyan said. It's beyond the reach of hope for any military service to hold onto every bit of the talent it's invested to create. But a service can at least try to make a path forward for people with certain skills, especially at a time when DoD deems those skills invaluable.

"In the Air Force, over time, we've wound up spending a lot of money to train pilots who wound up in the airline industry," he said. "There's always going to be that draw to the private sector. But a lot of those pilots we've trained have also gone on to become four-star generals. We're looking for the same kind of career progression for our career cyber officers and enlisted."

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