Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy to retrain federal employees as cyber defense analysts

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The Office of Management and Budget is launching a cyber reskilling academy to identify the next generation of IT talent from those already working in the ranks of the federal government.

“We have a critical shortage of qualified cybersecurity personnel, and it’s incumbent on us to develop those capabilities,” Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent said in a conference call with reporters Friday.

The Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy includes work from the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Education and the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council.

A senior administration official said the pilot program’s first class will consist of about 25 employees who don’t already have a background in IT. The academy aims to reskill the federal workforce with hands-on cybersecurity training.

“It’s an opportunity to provide them with the necessary training to actually qualify as cyber defense analysts,” Kent said, adding that the academy lines up with proposals already outlined with the President’s Management Agenda and the administration’s government reorganization plan in June.

Applications are now live on CIO.gov. All federal employees not currently working in the following job series are eligible to apply to the academy’s first class:

  • GS-0854 – Computer Engineers
  • GS-1550 – Computer Scientists
  • GS-0855 – Electronics Engineers
  • GS-2210 – IT Cybersecurity Specialists

Applications will remain open until Jan. 11, 2019.

“By making this available to our current federal employees, we can support career growth and retention for those who are already part of the mission,” Kent said.

Weighing problem-solving over technical expertise

The administration is working the contractor SANS to provide three parts of the academy’s infrastructure: the online assessment, a “cyber essentials” course that brings students up to speed on some of the IT essentials, and the immersive cybersecurity coursework.

Between Jan. 14 and Jan. 25, applicants will take an online assessment to gauge their IT skills.

Alan Paller, the founder of SANS and president of the SANS Institute, said in an interview that the online assessment focuses on how applicants approach problem-solving, rather than testing them on technical expertise.

“It finds people who are ideal, and it finds people who are high-potential. And it finds people who are unlikely to be good, no matter how much training you give them,” Paller said.

The Trump administration, he said, had been in talks with SANS for about six-to-eight months before Friday’s launch.

The vendor trains more than 41,000 cybersecurity professionals every year, but identifying prospective cybersecurity talent presented a whole new set of challenges.

“The main breakthrough is not [that] you can find people who are interested and train them,” Paller said. The main breakthrough is you can find people who, if you invest in training them, you have a very high probability of getting somebody who’s extraordinarily good.”

OMB will notify applicants selected for the academy starting on Feb. 25. Training will start in March and continue through June.

“It’s a rigorous program designed to give the employees, even [those] that have not been in highly technical roles, the types of skills that would be necessary to work as a cyber defense analyst upon completion of the program,” Kent said.

A senior administration official said the administration would select candidates based on their application’s personal statement and the assessment of their technical skills.

“That assessment helps predict the success of individuals in this going forward,” the official said.

Those accepted into the academy’s first class will first take a “cyber essentials” course, followed by four weeks of “follow-on learning, exercises and exams.”

Paller described the cyber essentials course as teaching students the “anatomy” of computer security – things like networks, operating systems and programming languages.

Students then take part in a six-day “boot camp” course, followed by a final certification exam. Those who pass the certification exam move onto the program’s final course.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom announced it would continue its work with SANS and its Cyber Discover program, which assessed the IT skill of more than 23,000 teenagers. In the U.S., the vendor’s VetSuccess program helps match transitioning service members with cybersecurity jobs.

“We looked at many vendors who could support us through this … but based on the results that they’ve achieved in other similar programs, we felt like this was a really good way to start,” Kent said.

OMB is also working on plans to soon launch a cyber reskilling pilot that will include federal employees who already have an IT background, as well as opportunities to train employees on robotic process automation, to shift to “low-value to high-value work.”

“We do know that a few small programs won’t be enough to solve the challenge of our overall scale, but that’s why we’re going to have many programs,” Kent said. “We’re going to learn from each one, and even though with smaller numbers in each of these programs, the approach that we’re taking and the support across the councils and our executives at all of the agencies will let us understand the success rate and then look to expand and industrialize those across the federal government.”

Applicants will require sign-off from their immediate supervisor and demonstrate an ability to attend the training courses.

“Some of the things don’t necessarily have to be in-person every single day, but it will be a mix of individual activities and on-site activities,” the senior administration official said.

While the goal of the program is to transition all of the academy’s students into the cyber workforce, graduates from the program may have the opportunity to work at different agencies.

“Our intent is to create new capabilities in those individuals, which will open them up to new opportunities,” the senior administration official said. “That may be it at their existing agency – it may be at others.”

Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos, in a statement Friday, said the academy will give current federal employees a chance to “develop their talent and take on new challenges.”

“The Reskilling Academy provides an excellent opportunity for our Federal employees to learn new skills and to gain access to one of the fastest growing job fields in the country,” DeVos said.