Eliminate college degree requirements and secure our nation in cyberspace

By prioritizing skills and competencies over traditional educational credentials, federal contractors can tap into a wider pool of talent.

It is hard to miss the cacophony of cyberattacks that are increasing in frequency and sophistication. Nation-state actors are using cyber to conduct economic espionage, to spread disinformation, and, as FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress in January, to potentially “wreak havoc” on American critical infrastructure that our lives and security depend on every day. The need for a robust cyber defense force has never been more palpable, particularly within the Intelligence Community.

And yet, at the heart of this escalating threat lies a stark reality: a staggering shortage of cybersecurity professionals — both in the public and private sectors. There are more than 500,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions in the United States alone, according to Cyberseek, and that number is expected to increase. The private sector has already taken steps to address this, but the federal government continues to lag. Despite such a significant talent gap, the Office of Management and Budget has certain educational requirements that prevent skilled cybersecurity workers from getting hired into federal contract positions. With the battle for talent intensifying, the time for change has come.

Today’s threat landscape makes it clear that it’s time to reevaluate this antiquated barrier and embrace a more inclusive and agile approach to cybersecurity recruitment — one that prioritizes skills over diplomas and diversifies our cyber workforce to confront the myriad challenges facing our digital age. And with skyrocketing costs and crushing student debt, thousands of young Americans are opting for alternatives to higher education. It is imperative the federal cybersecurity workforce does not miss out on this cohort.

Fostering a skills-based cyber talent across the federal enterprise has been a key focal point for the new National Cyber Director Harry Coker.

“To secure our nation’s cyberspace, we need to make cyber jobs more available and attainable for groups that traditionally haven’t been recruited,” Coker told a community college in Baltimore earlier this year.

He also has pushed for a series of cyber hiring sprints that aim to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into federal cyber jobs.

And Congress appears to agree with Coker’s approach. Late last year, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill designed to limit the requirement of minimum educational attainment for cybersecurity jobs in the federal government. Largely built on the Biden Administration’s National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy, the bill signals a recognition of the need to modernize hiring practices.

“No part of the federal government should disqualify an individual from winning the competition for a federal job based on whether they have one type of educational credential,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the bill.

In early May, the White House announced plans to shift thousands of federal IT jobs to skills-based hiring. Both initiatives represent major milestones.

Ultimately, a paradigm shift in hiring practices towards skills-based hiring offers significant promise in closing the talent shortage at the federal level. Government agencies ought to focus more on relevant skills and experience from apprenticeships, coding bootcamps and other non-traditional pathways. IBM has already partnered with ISC2, the world’s leading nonprofit for cybersecurity professionals, to launch an entry-level cybersecurity certificate, allowing candidates with no previous experience to obtain the in-demand skills and hands-on experience required for a cybersecurity specialist role. By following in footsteps like these, federal entities can not only bridge the cybersecurity talent gap but also empower individuals from diverse backgrounds to contribute their unique perspectives and insights to the field.

Facing an onslaught of cyber threats, the federal government must act. By prioritizing skills and competencies over traditional educational credentials, federal contractors can tap into a wider pool of talent and foster a more diverse cyber workforce. Such an approach not only aligns with the dynamic nature of cybersecurity but also ensures that the most qualified individuals get hired. Only then can the nation fill the talent gap and secure our nation’s digital infrastructure.

Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg is President of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and INSA Foundation, a non-profit association dedicated to government-academia-industry collaboration in the Intelligence and National Security. David Mitchell is a military/Skillbridge fellow at INSA

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