The FBI drafts ’em young

I always admired Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I never met him, but I sure admired the FBI agent he portrayed in the 1960s TV series. As a nerdy, four-eyes type, I imagined becoming a tough, craggy special agent driving a long coupe with landau bars! And holstering a nifty .38.

People still want to be FBI agents, analysts, whatever. But in the raw 21st century, the starting pay can look a little pale compared to the lures of tech companies. That’s according to Howard Marshall, the real FBI’s deputy assistant director for the cyber division. He spoke at last week’s GITEC Summit in Annapolis.

The cyber division does online sleuthing as exciting as you’ll find anywhere. Its mission is attractive to new graduates. But FBI newbies face challenges. Besides the mediocre pay, they face initial assignments anywhere. Many of the spots aren’t so glamorous. So the FBI mission, strong a draw as it might be, isn’t always enough.

At collegiate recruiting fairs, Marshall said often students are highly interested in the FBI. Then they hear they might start at $55,000. And be assigned to Anchorage.

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“They say, ‘Thanks, I think I’ll try Google or somewhere and work from home,'” Marshall said. He added, “Many have already made life decisions that preclude federal service.”

Yet when people do join, Marshall said, the FBI enjoys a 90 percent retention rate for staying the length of a career.

One strategy for bridging that gap, Marshall said, is to begin recruitment in high school. Yes, high school. The FBI is piloting this program in Pittsburgh. Beginning in their junior year, students can apply for summer internships at the FBI, working alongside agents and learning the real ropes. They can work during the school year too, time permitting. By the time the students graduate college, they’ll have had six years of FBI inculcation.

Will they join the agency if asked? Marshall said they don’t know yet, because the first of the kids is just heading to college.

At GITEC, several people listening wanted to know how they could sign up their own kid or a student they knew. But the FBI is only testing the high school recruitment program in a couple of locations.

The project is aimed at cyber. I asked Marshall if the students would participate in the FBI’s chase-and-evade driving training. If so, what red-blooded American boy or girl wouldn’t want to do that! But alas, no, it’s not part of the cybersecurity internships.

Also, not any old student can get in. One fed asked about the issue of marijuana legalization — and how someone who in high school or college was a regular user might fare. Marshall said at the federal level, pot is still not legal. The rules still apply. One cannot have used marijuana for three years prior to their employment application. Plus, even high school and college interns must pass a background check and a lie detector test, Marshall said.

It all sounded pretty cool, and Marshall appeared enthusiastic about the prospect of improving recruitment.

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