WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is evaluating how its 225,000-member cyber workforce can more easily transition to and from private industry, picking up new skills and fresh perspectives and spurring defense innovation in the process.

The Defense Department’s 2023-2027 cyber workforce strategy, released this week, includes four “human capital pillars”: identification of talent, recruitment, development of skills and personnel retention. Implementing it will require close interaction and unprecedented levels of cross-pollination with the tech industry, officials said.

The strategy, which supports the Biden administration’s national cybersecurity blueprint, calls for collaboration inside and outside government, academia and allied nations, and includes a talent-exchange pilot project. The department must prioritize these “engagements” and allocate resources to ensure there is mutual benefit, it said.

“Permeability, the ability to move between the different sectors, there has to be a change,” Patrick Johnson, director of the workforce innovation directorate for the department’s chief information officer, told reporters ahead of the release.

The approach is a departure from the traditional government job, which locks in employees on set career paths at gradually increasing pay scales over decades.

“We want to move from rewarding longevity — in other words, I’ve spent 30 years in this in this career — to a system, or allow for, individuals to go out for three years and come back, without penalty, and make those transitions back and forth,” Johnson said.

Such a circulating pipeline could constantly inject new perspectives into the Pentagon, a bureaucratic behemoth often criticized for its rigidity. Still, there are many details that would have to be worked out to keep employees coming back to Washington.

“How can we allow them to go out and become more developed with capability, experience and skill sets they’re not receiving here, and then how can we benefit by bringing them back in at a later time?” Johnson said. And once someone takes a tech sector job, “how do we keep tabs, so we’re constantly reaching back to them and saying, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity to come back, would you consider coming back? And here’s what we can do for you.’”

Competition for tech talent has long been fierce. Private companies can pay much larger salaries than the government can, and offer other benefits the Pentagon cannot match. Both Congress and the White House have weighed in on critical skill gaps that hinder the government’s ability to be cyber secure.

The Government Accountability Office recently found that “federal agencies have not made planning for their IT workforce a priority — despite 20 years’ worth of laws and guidance that have called for them to do so.”

Still, government work is seen as prestigious, even a calling to many, and time spent at the Pentagon can enhance careers.

A forthcoming implementation plan will lay out how the DoD proceeds with its workforce goals, and how its successes will ultimately be measured. Unorthodox methods will be necessary, according to John Sherman, the Pentagon CIO.

“Someone comes to DoD, then goes to industry in Silicon Valley, or Austin, or North Carolina, or wherever, and comes back. How can we do this, without having the security folks’ head explode, where they have to go through another year and a half or two years getting in the door?” he said Thursday, at a separate event. “We’re going to have to figure this out.”

Already, there’s a plan in place for agencies to streamline and speed up onboarding by modernizing the background-checking process.

Trusted Workforce 2.0 is the policy framework between the DoD, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of National Intelligence that’s taking aim at the lengthy background-checking process and backlogs for security clearances.

The plan shifts agencies to a continuous-vetting model that updates an employee’s background in real-time, a contrast to the way that periodic, labor-intensive reinvestigations updated a file from scratch every five to 10 years.

“One of the key pillars is exactly this point about creative approaches,” Sherman said, “on how we get past the old think about how we manage tech careers.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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