Students enter information from Adirondack hiking trail registers into a computer map program at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry research station in Newcomb, NY, on June 12, 2013.

Students enter information from Adirondack hiking trail registers into a computer map program at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry research station in Newcomb, NY, on June 12, 2013. AP Photo/Mary Esch

The Pentagon Is Recruiting Tech Talent Like Colleges Recruit Athletes

The Defense Department is trying new methods of engagement to recruit young techies.

Like many federal agencies, the Defense Department struggles to attract, recruit and retain young, technically talented employees. Data from the Office of Personnel Managementindicates the Defense Department has approximately 6.6 IT professionals over the age of 60 for every one under the age of 30.

Those numbers compound the Pentagon’s lengthy list of national security challenges topped by keeping pace with China and Russia and remaining at the forefront of global information dominance. Reversing the trend won’t happen by accident, and the Pentagon’s top tech official, Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy, is addressing the challenge directly.

“Our biggest challenges inside the [Defense Department], they are complex. They are mind-boggling, and we need the creative people who want to work on the complex and the mind-boggling,” Deasy said Monday at the Imagine Nation conference in Philadelphia.

For starters, the Pentagon is beginning to target young tech talent in ways that more closely resemble how universities recruit elite athletes than government’s traditional hands-off hiring method.

Big-time college football coaches don’t issue press releases, draft job descriptions to the university equivalent of and cross their fingers. Rather, Deasy said, they invite the best high school players to campus, show them around and have them meet former players who have made it to the big leagues.

Over the summer, Deasy said he hosted college students from the University of Virginia in a cybersecurity-specific career day. The students spent the day touring the National Security Agency, CIA, Secret Service and the Pentagon in what Deasy said amounted to “real-time recruiting.”

“They were engaged, and most importantly, they were asking us how it is they could get started in a career in government,” Deasy said.

While college students typically learn a lot about working in Silicon Valley and start ups, they're less often exposed to information about government careers, Deasy said.

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Pay is considered the main problem government agencies have in competing for tech talent with the private sector. In certain fields, like cybersecurity, talented professionals can earn two or three times more money working for a contractor than they can for a federal agency. Yet study after studyindicates millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—value other factors including management culture and an organization's mission in addition to pay.

Successful tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google market themselves to young people as cool, innovative places to work where they can make a difference. These kinds of companies pay well, but they are also known quantities to the vast majority of young people with even a passive interest in tech, Deasy said.

Some government agencies, like the Peace Corps, have figured out how to market themselves well to young people. The Peace Corps engages with high school and university students in person and through social media and is a successful recruiter despite offering very low pay. The Peace Corps’ Twitter page, followed by 1.5 million accounts, is loaded with several thousand pictures of recruits making a difference around the world.

Few government agencies market themselves with such mastery, but Deasy said the Pentagon is taking small steps in that direction.

The Pentagon released a video earlier this year on providing a cursory overview of the U.S. military. Rather than raw war footage or shots of troops overseas, the two-minute animated video succinctly educates young people about the military and opportunities it provides in a format they are accustomed to, Deasy said. Produced by the Defense Department, Deasy said the video has accrued 200,000 clicks and bumped traffic to the Pentagon’s website by 30 percent.

“We’re trying to do something different to get engagement to occur in a much different way,” Deasy said. “We’re trying to think outside the box. I’d like to think it’s a step in the right direction.”

These sorts of recruiting efforts may be imperative for the Defense Department as it seeks to maintain its dominance around the globe in an evolving technological landscape. Deasy said fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military today, and only 15 percent of young adults have a parent who has served, a substantial decrease from 1995.

“Service seems to be passed down from generation to generation,” Deasy said, but with fewer people serving, the military’s tried and true method of filling its gaps will not work. Instead, the Defense Department has to find new ways to engage.

“We won’t win the hearts and minds [of young people] when it comes to wallets,” Deasy said. “However, we can win the hearts and minds on the complexity, the challenges, the very calling [of public service].”