How agencies doubled the number of new cybersecurity hires this year

Agencies have hired twice as many cyber professionals this year compared to the last, according to the Office of Personnel Management. The increase in hiring comes in part because agencies still have some large mission critical gaps to fill.

But OPM said it’s also because it’s doubled down on its own efforts to help agencies recruit and train new cyber experts and existing professionals, as outlined in the President’s Cybersecurity National Action Plan.

And the agency has new hiring and talent development policies in the works that will make it easier for cybersecurity specialists to build their skills within agencies and move back and forth between the public and private sectors to gain experience, Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said during a speech at the Symantec Government Symposium in Washington Aug. 30.

“That’s how many of us think about our careers. I stayed because I got great opportunities, opportunities to have impact, opportunities to grow and develop, opportunities to take on different roles,” Cobert said in describing her previous stint in the private sector. “We as a government need to recognize this mindset in employment patterns and deliver against that.”

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In the short term, OPM has been busy.

The agency is training members to join its “Cyber HR Cadre,” a group of agency specialists who understand the workforce and the field and can help agency HR and hiring managers build and recruit their own teams.

“We also recognized that we need to help the HR community do a better job in working with all of you,” Cobert said. “We have to help them understand what’s unique about the cyber workforce, what’s unique about this incredibly competitive talent marketplace.”

In addition, OPM has been working with other agencies to prime the talent pipeline and get qualified applicants through the door more quickly.

For example, the administration wants to add more resources to the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, which pairs college students studying cybersecurity who join federal service after graduation with government scholarships. About 2,000 students have been through the program so far, and 97 percent of them have been placed in federal positions, Cobert said.

The agency also worked with the Homeland Security Department to prepare for a cyber and tech job fair last month, where DHS conducted more than 700 interviews and made about 150 offers on the spot. Now, OPM is working with DHS to review the hundreds of resumes it received during the job fair to help them assess and interview those candidates, Cobert said.

OPM is also developing a new website with information for cyber job seekers and recruiters, which Cobert said she expects will be online in the next few months.

A new mindset for the FBI

FBI Director James Comey said he realized why his agency and others are having such a difficult time in recruiting new talent after a conversation with his daughter, who said, “Who would want to work for ‘the man’?”

“I think she’s right,” he said. “But I said to her, if people saw what this man and woman of the FBI was like and what we do and the challenges we face, I think they’d want to come work for us.”

Comey said he didn’t want to share too much of the FBI’s recruiting strategy, because he’s in a tough battle with the private sector for top talent. But his agency is focusing on creating a welcoming marketing strategy and mindset around new talent.

“We’re working very hard inside the FBI when we get that kind of talent in, to demonstrate more agility than we might naturally demonstrate when you’re 108-years old,” Comey said. “There’s a challenge when you’re 108, you can calcify. When a smart, young kid comes in with a wonderful way of approaching a new problem or approaching an old problem in a new way, you might try to crush that person’s spirit by saying, ‘No, we’ve never done it that way.’ We’re working very hard inside the FBI to be a whole lot cooler than you may think we are.”

The agency is also looking for new ways to find and develop cyber talent within the FBI’s teams of special agents. Comey said the ideal special agent is smart, physically fit and loyal. But finding a person with all three of those qualities is a tough challenge for the FBI, which means the agency is considering how it can cultivate its own talent.

“Can we grow our own cyber expertise within the organization?” Comey said. “Or can we change the mix in cyber squads? A cyber squad today is normally eight special agents, gun-carrying people of integrity, physicality, high intelligence and technical expertise. Or ought the mix to be something else? A smaller group of this and a group of high integrity people with technical expertise who called cyber investigators? We’re leaving our minds open to fact that we’ve never faced a transformation like the digital transformation.”

Rod Turk, chief information security officer for the Commerce Department, said he’s open to thinking differently about his job candidates as well. He likened the hiring process to recruiting an athlete.

“I want the best person who is motivated to do the right things and wants to learn,” Turk said. “I will make them into a position player — the position I need or that they may want to move into.”

If Turk can find a person with those basic qualities, the technical expertise and knowledge will come slowly over time, he said.