How federal agencies are finding the best employees

With the recent announcement that the Department of Defense will be turning to private recruiters to find and train potential employee candidates, many are hoping that this is the beginning of a new era of smarter government hiring practices. To understand what mistakes the government has been making in the past, and to learn about what they can do better in the future, we spoke with Simone Petrella, chief strategy officer at CyberVista.

ABERMAN: Where has the DoD gone wrong in its past recruiting of talent?

PETRELLA: In my past life, before my current role in the training space for cybersecurity, I actually was a consultant in the DoD, and had a very large team focusing on cyber threat intelligence. And one of the things that differentiated our ability to hire roles more quickly than our actual DoD government counterparts was actually their hiring processes. They were extremely reliant on USA Jobs, which also, from my own experience coming out of grad school, I think I waited six months to actually receive confirmation that my resumé had been submitted, let alone that anyone had actually contacted me.

And in that role, because I was hiring analysts, what I saw was that our DoD clients were actually, through USA Jobs, looking for computer science people, electrical engineers, and because it was completely outsourced to H.R. that was fairly removed from the actual mission, they weren’t able to actually actively recruit the types of skill sets they needed to do the actual job as quickly as we were able to do it. So a lot of it really comes back to the H.R. machine that’s fairly passive and slow moving, across the DoD, but also the rest of the federal government.

ABERMAN: How much of it is just an artifact of the federal acquisition rules, and the idea that you have to post requirements, and everybody should have equal access? This seems to run completely counter to the reality of recruiting the private sector, which is, I want you to come work for me now.

PETRELLA: Yeah. I don’t know how much of it is because of the FAR specifically, but I certainly think culturally that’s a huge component of it. You know, the private sector post positions openly too, and you can compete for a position with the same amount of transparency. But what the private sector does is, we’re very active in trying to go out and recruit.

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And I’ve seen the DoD trying to do this more and more, where they are hosting job fairs, and they’re trying to actually attract talent into those particular mission sets, in the way that a private sector recruiter would do it. What’s been so successful, like LinkedIn for cybersecurity professionals, is one of the premier ways that you can pretty much guarantee you’re going to get some sort of outreach from a recruiter. And the DoD just hasn’t taken those same tactics and kind of brought them into the current world.

ABERMAN: So do you think that is a function of having to approach outreach to get talent like the private sector, or do you think that the DoD also needs to change how they look for talent? For example, instead of saying I want someone with a computer science background, saying I want to see somebody’s portfolio and what they’ve actually done. You know what I mean?

PETRELLA: I think this is an area that both the DoD and a private sector share a challenge. And the reason the private sector has come out a little bit ahead is because they’re just a little more nimble in their speed. But the DoD, when you look at kind of how they’re looking at job requisitions, I do think it comes down to, what are the the skill sets they’re actually looking for?

And so, just to kind of share a story, back to my original comment on when I was in the DoD as a contractor and a consultant: we ran a cyber threat intelligence team that supported the government. And in my own role, our government counterparts, they typically, in their job positions, were looking for computer science, sometimes electrical engineering, that’s the way the job descriptions were written. They had never been updated, and the reality was that we were in an analytic role. So, my team were writing reports, they were producing things for policymakers, and that requires strong critical thinking, skills strong analytical skills, and strong communications and writing skills.

That’s not to say that that’s not something that technically-minded individual might have. But that’s not necessarily something they’ve trained to do, or nor have they focused on doing. So by focusing on that as the skill set in H.R. process, the candidates that were coming in for the DoD side were just not as equipped to do the analytic work, whereas we had, as the private sector counterpart, the nimbleness to actually go out and say, we’re going to screen for these intangible skills, and we’ll train them on the technical skills.

ABERMAN: So does this mean, that as DoD announces that they’re going to try to use private recruiters, that’s only half the solution, then?

PETRELLA: It’s half the solution, but I think the other half of the solution is something the DoD is really well equipped to do. Because the DoD is really great at training. The military services are really great at training, and so it comes down to: what do you screen when you’re doing that private sector type recruiting, and then how do you pipeline people through a program to get them the skills they need to do to be effective in those in those mission roles? And so, it is only half the equation.

You think about someone typically coming out of the Air Force, or the Navy, who goes through an entire signals intelligence program. I mean, we’re talking about months of training that they get through their association with the DoD. That is half the equation. I think the other, there’s actually another component of the equation that the DoD really has going for it. There has been a multitude of cybersecurity professional surveys done on the state of the workforce, around the talent gap that is increasingly emerging, and what repeatedly comes across in those surveys is that cybersecurity professionals, yes they care about money.

Salary matters, but you know what else matters? It’s investment in their careers, and being able to actually protect an organization, data, or people. And no one has a more significant mission in that area than the DoD in particular. And you know, that’s a really great thing for them to leverage when you talk about the recruiting angle.

ABERMAN: So I guess in conclusion, Simone, it sounds to me like this pilot program to use recruiters to get at cybersecurity professionals, A, you think it’s a great idea and B, you think it’s going to work.

PETRELLA: I do. I think that it all comes down to being able to proactively screen and look for talent that you might not have already found in other areas. It’s about looking for the kind of diamond in the rough that you can actually bring up to speed, and the DoD’s great at doing that in so many other realms. And cyber is new, but now it’s time to apply this into the cybersecurity professional realm.

ABERMAN: Well, I really appreciate you sharing your story today, and it’s great to hear of our federal government getting out there and engaging people in a way that will make the country safer, and create great jobs, and congratulations to them for that. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. That was Simone Petrella with CyberVista. Thanks for joining us.

PETRELLA: Thank you.

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