Cyber Excepted Service: Bolstering DoD’s cyber workforce

There is a global shortage of cybersecurity professionals, and the U.S. alone faces a deficit of 314,000 cybersecurity jobs. In light of this shortage, the entire federal government and private industry are struggling to recruit and retain highly skilled and qualified cybersecurity professionals.

But competing with the private sector for top cybersecurity professionals will require the Defense Department to innovate.

That innovation begins with having a personnel system that provides a more agile hiring process, and better incentives for retention than the traditional Office of Personnel Management competitive service personnel system. Recognizing this need, Congress granted the defense secretary the authority to establish the Cyber Excepted Service (CES) civilian personnel system to enable service components to better recruit, develop, train and retain the top cyber talent.

So what is CES, and how will it help the DoD build and strengthen its cybersecurity workforce?

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Before exploring the ways that CES is positioned to bolster DoD’s cyber workforce, it is helpful to first understand what CES is not. CES is not the National Security Personnel System, and CES is not the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System. CES is also not a pay-for-performance system, rank-in-person system or a mechanism to more easily terminate employees.

CES provides all of the protections of the Title V Competitive Service, while providing unique hiring flexibilities so hiring managers can move quickly, and also provides retention incentives to current employees. The transition to CES for current employees is an as-is conversion, meaning that employees retain career status, there is no new performance management system, and employees get to keep their current federal benefits, retirement and leave accrual.

In many ways the daily life of employees who transition to CES will remain the same. The transition to CES is voluntary for current employees, and employees who opt to convert will do so along with their agency. Selected DoD cyber agencies representing nearly 15,000 employees are slotted to convert over the next four years, and a few agencies representing about 500 civilians have already successfully converted.

The most obvious and immediate benefits of CES are the new hiring and pay setting capabilities. Under CES, hiring managers have the ability to hire directly. Hiring managers can advertise vacancies anywhere, and even hold their own job fairs and then hire on the spot.  The hiring process will remain merit-based, but by eliminating the requirement for organizations to utilize USAJobs, the hiring process will be exponentially expedited. Expediting the hiring process will allow the DoD to fill critical vacancies faster, which will lead to a more operationally ready and lethal cyber capability for the entire department.

In addition to speeding up the hiring process, CES grants hiring managers the ability to set pay for new hires at any step (up to step 10) of the grade for which they are hiring against; and with DoD approval taking less than 48 hours for a decision, hiring managers may set pay up to step 12.

CES provides two additional steps for each grade, while the OPM pay tables stop at step 10. This extended step range can be awarded not only through appointments but also through promotions and awards.

Providing hiring managers with these types of pay setting capabilities will enable the DoD to better compete with the private sector to recruit top cyber talent.

Current government employees will also benefit from converting to the Cyber Excepted Service. The Career Broadening Swap Program (CBSP), and the Targeted Local Market Supplement (TLMS) are two new benefits that will only be available to those employees who convert to CES.

The CBSP is being modeled after the Intelligence Community’s Joint Duty Swap Program, and will allow cyber professionals opportunities to broaden and enhance their skills by experiencing the broader cyber community beyond their home element.

The TLMS would replace the CES local market supplement, which is equivalent to OPM’s locality pay, and provide a larger percentage of base pay as a supplement to employees, to act as a retention incentive for critical agencies, locations, or work roles. In much the same as that the military offers retention bonuses for critical military occupational specialties, the TLMS will provide the DoD with yet another tool aimed at retaining cyber civilians filling important positions.

If hiring managers become adept at using CES’s agile hiring and flexible pay setting authorities, the DoD will be better able to successfully compete for highly skilled cyber professionals.  Similarly, agencies will be better able to retain and develop the existing cyber workforce if they leverage the unique opportunities and monetary incentives available through CES.

The Cyber Excepted Service provides hiring managers and cyber agencies with many tools to recruit and retain top cyber talent. In order for the CES to truly bolster the DoD’s civilian workforce, the entire eligible civilian workforce needs to opt into the service, and the new tools available under it need to be understood and vigorously leveraged.

Leslie Weinstein is an Army Reserve officer and a DoD policy consultant, and is writing a white paper on defense industrial base cybersecurity issues.

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