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DHS: ‘We’re not looking for the 30-year-career employee’

The next generation of federal employees may not stay in government for 30 years. They might not have the same pay and benefits as their colleagues. And their opportunities for advancement might not depend on their spot on the General Schedule.

The Homeland Security Department says it has an opportunity now to create the federal workforce of the future and pave the way for civil service reform. It’s using a recent authority to hire 1,000 new cybersecurity professionals to start thinking differently about the way it recruits and retains new talent.

As the department discusses its strategy for hiring hundreds of new cyber professionals and a mission critical skills gap, DHS is acknowledging that the private sector, in many cases, isn’t the enemy.

“It is okay to have this in-and-out of government career,” Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer for DHS, said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We are really okay with the fact that in some ways, you become an ambassador for us. If we at least create the best experience that we can, that you gain the most knowledge that can from this, and that you then take it to your private sector career, I don’t know that there’s any harm in that.”

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First, DHS is exploring how it can more easily invite its employees to take on jobs in and out of government, or as Bailey described it, a “passport” between the public and private sectors.

“We’re not looking for 30-year-career employees,” she said. “We’re actually looking for folks that want to come in, they want to get this excellent experience and then they take it to the private sector, and then they come back again.”

Phyllis Schneck, deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications at the National Protection and Programs Directorate, spent more than a decade in the private sector before coming to government. She said she doesn’t think of DHS’ charge to hire new cyber talent as direct competition with the private sector.

Rather, cyber professionals will be better for having both government and industry experience, and they should be encouraged to try both, she said.

“The skills that we need … cyber incident response, risk and strategic analysis, vulnerability detection, hunt teams, intelligence, forensics, network engineers, these are things the private sector wants and needs also,” Schneck said. “These skill sets are better when they’ve done both, and we’re really looking at how we expedite it and make awesome careers for folks.”

Schneck said she doesn’t see the harm in seeing young cyber professionals leave an agency, because in many cases, they often end up advising a private sector company on a tool or product that the government may eventually buy.

With more flexibility to move in and out of government, Bailey also envisions a scenario where she can offer a pay and benefits package based on the project the department hires the employee for and the person’s individual needs — rather than the traditional defined benefits package most federal employees under the General Schedule now have.

“It’s a menu of benefits and options in which you could negotiate where you are in your life,” she said. “A mid-career professional will probably want things like a sabbatical to go back or the idea of an industry exchange or loaned executive exchange program. But [for] someone fresh out of college, it may all be about child care subsidy and student loan repayment, because that’s the first thing on their mind.”

DHS is beginning to ramp up its student loan repayment program, Bailey said, because the department is beginning to realize that its young talent often enters the workforce with thousands of dollars in student debt.

“All of this takes money, so it’s not a free for all,” Bailey said. “We don’t have a blank check from anybody. But we just have to be really smart about where do we apply those different incentives and how do we make the best use of those, so that we can actually attract and then retain the talent that we want.”

Recruiting new talent

Though Bailey acknowledged that she’s suggested major reforms to the civil service, she said the first step is to discuss which changes would need a new regulation, policy or statute. Next, she wants to determine what changes DHS could make in the short, mid and long term.

In the short term, the department will hold a cyber career fair with all of its components later in July. DHS received more than 4,000 applications so far for the job announcements it posted in advance, Bailey said. Hiring managers are currently reviewing and selecting applicants they want to interview on the day of the event.

“We’re actually going to have the hiring managers there, interview them on the spot, make tentative job offers on the spot and then have security there with us, so that they can begin the process of filling out their background investigation and their fingerprinting and everything else,” she said.

The goal is to shorten the often long gap between the time a prospective candidate interviews for a job and then hears a response back from the agency. Bailey said she’s seen agencies who have lost good applicants, because they’ve waited too long to make a firm offer to their candidate.

“This has always been able to be done, we just have to actually start just thinking differently about how we use what’s available,” she said.

As she considers how DHS will implement this statutory cyber authority, Bailey said she isn’t looking for a quick win. Instead, she wants to find a solution that will work for the department in the long run.

“This stuff is not going to be done overnight,” Bailey said. “It’s not going to be for the faint of heart. We’re going to have to manage a lot of people’s expectations as to how quickly you can take basically this aircraft carrier in the middle of downtown D.C. and move it. But the wake of goodness that we’ll leave behind will be significant if we get this right.”