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Research Questions

  1. What are the key drivers of whether personnel in this career field want to stay or leave?
  2. What are the key drivers of personnel's attraction or lack of attraction to the career field?
  3. What could USAF do to attract and retain the best personnel?

The U.S. military's success in cyberwarfare depends on the capabilities of the cyber personnel who are brought to the fight. Because cyberwarfare is considered a core element of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) mission, USAF has been looking for ways to revamp training of its offensive and defensive cyber operators to develop the best cyberwarfare workforce possible. USAF has also sought to better understand some of the drivers of attraction to and retention in the cyber field.

To this end, researchers at the RAND Corporation conducted 30 discussions to collect the viewpoints of enlisted and civilian cyber personnel on training, recruiting, and retaining issues and solutions in their career fields. The researchers also spoke with subject-matter experts at several bases. The authors summarize participants' insights on recruitment and retention in this second volume of this report. Volume I presents findings related to training.

Key Findings

Cyber personnel expressed mixed views on whether recruiting is a concern

  • Questionnaire respondents' overall level of satisfaction with the quality of cyber talent being recruited was neutral.
  • The most frequently mentioned recruiting concern was USAF's inability to identify the right personnel.
  • Another issue was the protracted onboarding process, which can include a long training period, a 180-day wait period after retirement for former airmen who want to return to the field as civilians, and an extensive security clearance process.
  • Other recruiting issues included lack of intrinsic motivation among applicants and lack of knowledge among recruiters of what jobs in the cyber field entail.

Participants in 77 percent of focus groups said that retention is a concern

  • Participants expressed concern that the best-quality people are the ones leaving.
  • The most commonly mentioned retention topic pertained to the allure of private-sector cyber jobs that pay well and are less bureaucratic than military jobs.
  • Many participants also said that personnel leave the cyber career field because they are unhappy about being "pulled off keyboard"—i.e., being promoted from the technical work they enjoy doing to perform a supervisory role.
  • Participants explained that some personnel wanted to leave the military because they felt that their training and skill sets were not being appropriately utilized.
  • While personnel data suggest that cyber retention overall is not a problem, the authors' review of the Armed Forces Qualification Test scores lends support to participants' concerns that top performers might be leaving at higher rates.


  • Monitor retention, especially of top performers. Currently, there is no systematic way to identify top performers, but USAF should begin collecting such data to track retention.
  • Develop materials to help get recruiters and the public well versed in cyber career fields. Develop materials that can be used to better explain the job to a lay audience and the overall criticality of the cyber mission to USAF. The materials should provide a realistic preview of the job.
  • Truncate the onboarding process for civilians. Revisit the merits of the 180-day processing period for applicants with prior USAF service with cyber backgrounds who wish to come back as civilian cyber specialists. Explore whether financial compensation could be given to viable applicants during the clearance process.
  • Create senior technical roles that are not management oriented. Some cyber personnel want the ability to "stay on keyboard" indefinitely to maintain their technical skills and do the work that they enjoy instead of being forced to assume supervisory roles.
  • Take steps to address bureaucracy and other major sources of dissatisfaction. USAF needs to address these obstacles to counter the draw of the private sector and ensure that they do not continue as the enterprise normalizes.
  • Improve identification and tracking of civilians in the cyber mission force (CMF). The Air Force Personnel Center currently does not have a clear way of identifying civilians in the CMF. This is a necessary first step to monitoring retention of these individuals.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of the Assistant Deputy Chief Information Officer for Digital Transformation and Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Cyber Effects Operations, and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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