WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's cybersecurity mission is facing a classic supply and demand problem: There's a nationwide shortage of tech talent and an oversupply of jobs.
This leaves the Pentagon starved of the cyber-sentries needed to defend its digital networks as the nation's top computer scientists and software engineers often choose careers in the private sector that offer fat salaries and generous benefits.
"They are so talented and in such high demand," then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said of the Pentagon's red team members, cybersecurity experts who test and defend Defense Department computer networks, at a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in May. "We really get out-recruited."
If there was ever a time the Pentagon would not want to lose the recruiting battle with the private sector, it's now. The Chinese, Russians and Iranians have all hacked important aspects of American society since 2016. Moscow and Tehran targeted U.S. elections, and Beijing has hacked U.S. defense contractors, highlighting the Pentagon's need for cyber-defenders.
Offensively, the Pentagon will also increasingly need tech expertise. The military soon plans to integrate artificial intelligence technology into its weapons systems, an endeavor that would give war machines advanced capabilities and rely on yet-to-be-implemented 5G wireless internet technology.
These tasks are monumental. Some of them may be done by entities on the Pentagon's periphery, like defense contractors. Others, like those done by the red teams, must be carried out by the government.
Capitol Hill knows this, and is nudging the Defense Department to create a pipeline from top U.S. universities to the Pentagon.
But that pipeline will need to offer strong incentives to steer recruits with some of the highest-earning potential of all college students away from the private sector.
"Students have many choices these days," Sally Luzader, manager of corporate relations at Purdue University's Department of Computer Science, said in an email. "So the top candidates, especially, have the luxury of being very selective."
Those graduates, sought by massive tech companies, startups and even Wall Street, often choose between multiple lucrative job offers at salary levels reserved for veteran government employees.