Building a well-trained cyber workforce has been a challenge for the federal government, and the first step in that process is finding well-qualified candidates to fill the positions.
Laura Bate, senior programming associate for New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative, said there are several factors that make that the case, but agencies do have options to overcome the obstacles.
“When you start talking about what encourages retention or what attracts people to jobs, it’s more than just pay,” she told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And, to a certain extent, I find that encouraging.”
Of course, pay does remain a huge motivator in the field, she said. It’s the classic American solution: throw money at the problem. But everyone’s heard it by now: the federal government can’t compete with the private sector when it comes to wages.
So federal agencies tend to rely on the mission to inspire candidates and bring in employees, but that hasn’t been enough so far to bring talent in enough quantities to the entirety of government.
“We’re short on people,” she said. “The spread on that is not even across the agencies, or even the departments. There are certain agencies that are hit harder. For example, NSA: the work they’re doing is interesting, they’re having a different hiring environment than for example [the Office of Personnel Management], or the Post Office, not to pick on anyone in particular.”
In some of these cases, the mission, the devotion to public service, just isn’t enough to motivate candidates in the numbers required, especially in a field with so much competition for talent.
“Mission is a big one, but I would say the federal government does not have a monopoly on good mission,” Bate said.
But just as important as pay or mission, she said, are educational opportunities.
“I can’t put enough emphasis on making sure educational options are available to people coming in,” she said. “That’s one of the best ways to draw people in, it’s one of the best ways to retain them, it’s one of the best ways to ensure that you have a cutting edge workforce, particularly when you have a large organization where you can rotate them around different offices, for example. You have different pools of expertise, you can really expand your employees’ understanding of the field as a whole. And that really can do a lot both to improve the workforce and keep them with you.”
That understanding of the field as a whole is something students aren’t necessarily getting in universities, she said. Many students come out of college with a cyber or computer science degree, but little understanding of the geopolitical context of the world they’re about to enter.
For example, how many graduates from a cybersecurity program have knowledge of international relations? Or health care? Or finance? Bate said the contextual understanding in these areas is just as important, such as the different data requirements for each field, or compliance with regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
In addition, these recent graduates may have the technical skills to understand the baseline of the job, but not necessarily the experience with the specific tools their organization uses.
And finally, there’s also a problem of credentials. If you’re the human resources department, what’s your baseline credential for cybersecurity? A bachelor’s degree in computer science? What about certifications?
That’s why Bate says an apprenticeship program could be a good fit for cybersecurity positions to guarantee the quality of their workforce.
“The work-based learning component of it in conjunction with classroom learning means that people who are coming out of those programs have experience with the tools and have demonstrated knowledge that the employers know exactly what they’re going to get,” she said.
When the employer designs the training program, there’s no ambiguity regarding what the minimum amount of education or experience should be for a qualified hire. The employer can ensure that every employee begins on the same page with the same tools and experience.
Bate said there are a couple of pilot programs already in place that could provide proof of concept for this idea.
“There are about half a dozen that I’m tracking that are emerging, starting to roll,” she said. “One or two that I can think of that have students that are starting to graduate.”