Air Force finds new ways to recruit cyber professionals

Air Force plans to recruit and retain cyber professionals include a new tech track career path set to debut next year.

A new career track for Air Force cyber professionals could see its initial cohort as early as 2024. The cyber tech track will start as a beta testing program using an existing group of officers in the cyber workforce. The initial testing phase will also explore offering a similar program to other technical specialties.

As part of the cyber track career path, service members can stay in cyber billets throughout their careers instead of rotating to other positions in a line officer progression.

“You don’t necessarily have to follow a tried and true career path — you can have a different path. If you like what you’re doing, you can stay in that and you don’t have to go into a position of leadership, you stay on a technical track,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown at a Mitchell Institute webinar June 7.

A specialized tech track for cyber professionals will allow them to potentially stay in one place instead of moving every couple of years, and they could focus exclusively on their specialty instead of working in broader-based jobs throughout their Air Force career. The career track echoes a personnel management system the Air Force introduced in 2019 that allows six specific subgroups of officers to compete for promotions within their own career category instead of against a broader group of line officers. The categories include special operations, information warfare and nuclear missile operations.

An Air Force spokesperson said the cyber tech track is still in a planning stage while the service establishes qualification criteria and what the selection process will look like. In the future, the service will consider expanding the concept to other specialties including engineering.

“We’re really trying to break the paradigm, particularly for cyber. Some of these other really technical career fields where we know it’s important and in order to retain, we’ve got to change the model. It can’t be just about money, it’s got to be some of these other factors that I think will help with retention,” Brown said.

For enlisted airmen, Brown said more needs to be done to get them credit when they complete cyber education. When an airman completes an associate or bachelor’s degree, those accomplishments go into the servicemember’s duty portfolio. Brown said the Air Force needs to add completion of certificate programs in cyber fields to the member’s duty history.

“We don’t actually capture the fact that they’ve gotten some global certification in cyber, which is really, really important and more important maybe than a full academic degree,” Brown said.

The Air Force, along with the other military services, continues to struggle with filling all of its funded cyber positions.  A Government Accountability Office report last December found the Air Force, Army and Navy filled around 80 percent of active duty cyber career billets between 2017 and 2021.

In addition to a focus on specialized career paths and education, the Air Force started a program to allow experienced professionals an opportunity to commission into active duty service at a higher rank depending on their level of experience. The cyber direct commissioning program offers a fast track to joining the service as a cyberspace warfare operations officer with reduced training and onboarding time.

“We want to use the cyber direct commissioning program to tap into talent pools that we have not been able to access effectively”, said Lt. Gen. Leah Lauderback,  Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber effects operations. “The goal is to create an opportunity, remove unnecessary barriers, and accelerate those that get selected into the officer ranks with rank and pay commensurate to their actual experience levels.”

The Air Force began accepting applicants for commissioning into the program in January and is now looking at candidates for fiscal 2024. The service reviews the candidate’s experience before offering constructive service credit, which would allow them to commission at a higher rank. Specifically, the program looks for candidates with cyber-related civilian work experience and graduate degrees in the field.

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