U.S. Military Offers Special Pay to Retain Top Cyber Talent

military cyber

At a time when organizations everywhere are searching for the right employee retention formula, the United States military is taking a pretty straightforward approach to hanging on to key talent: more money.

As the Federal Times has reported, the U.S. Armed Forces are paying “tens of millions of dollars each year above set compensation rates to keep sought-after cyber experts onboard and engaged on the digital front lines.”

As the Federal Times’ Colin Demarest and Molly Weisner noted, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) workforce evaluation finds the American military “spent at least $160 million on cyber retention bonuses annually” from fiscal years 2017 to 2021. In that four-year span, staffing levels across most related career fields the GAO analyzed—including in the Army, Air Force and Navy—staying above 80%, although four of the six Marine Corps career fields fell below 80% of authorized levels in fiscal year 2021.

This “special pay” is meant to help ensure the military “holds on to its top performers, has people in hard-to-fill roles and maintains much-needed expertise amid rivaling opportunities with outside companies or other federal agencies,” Demarest and Weisner wrote, adding that the services determine how to distribute the incentives, with guidance coming from the Department of Defense (DoD).

Increasing Comp to Stay Competitive

According to the GAO report, the military services track cyber personnel staffing levels by career fields, but U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) uses work role designations to assign personnel to cyber mission teams. However, the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps do not track staffing data by work role.

As a result, military service officials cannot determine if specific work roles are experiencing staffing gaps, the GAO’s evaluation points out. Tracking staffing data at the work role level would enable the military services to identify and address staffing challenges in providing the right personnel to carry out key missions at USCYBERCOM, according to the report, which notes that this information is also essential for increasing personnel assigned to USCYBERCOM as planned by the DoD.

“To accomplish its national security mission and defend a wide range of critical infrastructure, DoD must recruit, train, and retain a knowledgeable and skilled cyber workforce,” the report reads. “However, DoD faces increasing competition from the private sector looking to recruit top cyber talent to protect systems and data from a barrage of foreign attacks.”

Finding and retaining this type of “ready and sufficient cyber cohort” is critical to shielding the DoD’s networks and its most sensitive information as well as the execution of digital strikes on foreign countries or militant groups, Demarest and Weisner wrote.

“Recruitment woes, however, have consumed headlines,” they continued. “The U.S. Army, for example, suffered a shortfall of 15,000 recruits in fiscal [year] 2022. That left the service 20,000 or so troops short of its end-strength number authorized by Congress.”

The department has also had to fight to compete with the private sector, not to mention other government agencies, for young and skilled workers in emerging tech fields, noted Demarest and Weisner.

“Big Tech offers nearly uncapped salaries, competitive benefits and workplace flexibility, though recent layoffs are creating a labor pool the government hopes to tap.”

To find the required talent and retain the skilled staffers they already have, “federal workplaces have looked to incentives, monetary and otherwise,” the Federal Times article added. “In years with staffing gaps, the military services rolled out bonuses and other perks to recruit and retain.”

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