Here’s one prescription for getting more qualified civilians into national security work

As threats to the United States multiply, the government will need growing numbers of capable civilians in national security. But creaky apparatus for hiring a...

As threats to the United States multiply, the government will need growing numbers of capable civilians and national security. But creaky apparatus for hiring and clearing people gets in the way. That’s from a detailed look by the Center for a New American Security. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with senior fellow Katherine Kuzminski.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin What made you look at the civilian workforce? And first of all, let’s define our terms. That’s probably half the civilian workforce of the government could be connected in some way to national security.

Katherine Kuzminski That’s right. It’s a pretty substantial portion. There’s over 800,000 civilians in DoD and the military departments alone. We also include things like the State Department, USAID and parts of the government that you might not think about. So parts of the Department of the Treasury or the Department of Justice. Certainly, we’ve seen a lot of attention paid in the last couple of years to recruitment, military recruitment. But we forget that on the other side of that are a network of civilians who both support and lead the military in our broader national security aims.

Tom Temin And are there particular challenges to the government for getting people in to do that type of work versus getting people in to do procurement or housing policy analysis or oversight of programs in inspectors general office, this type of thing?

Katherine Kuzminski Certainly. So there’s a significant amount of technical requirements that we have for especially our more senior civilians in national security. We think of things not only like STEM and cyber experts, but also thinking about foreign experience, foreign language experience in a lot of cases, a law degree or an advanced policy degree. Deep data analytics, these are things that make the federal government run and make our policies operate well. And the challenges that we have a number of people who are willing to spend the time to get those credentials. They’re also willing to take a series of unpaid internships in Washington, D.C. It’s a very geographically based career field, and it’s not a cheap city to live in. And so we see folks taking out big student loans to pay for graduate degrees and then taking these unpaid internships. So there starts to become some challenges to actually accessing the paying jobs within the system.

Tom Temin And part of the military’s problem in recruiting new people for uniformed services is that even though the country is growing only, what are they saying, something like 19 or 20% of 18 year old youth are even capable of serving for whatever reason. They have criminal records or they can’t pass this or that test. They’re not physically fit. Whatever the case might be. Is a kind of parallel thing happening in the civilian side. The country’s growing, but more and more graduates are coming out of four year institutions that can’t read or do math.

Katherine Kuzminski It’s a combination of things. So when we think of the military recruiting example, there is both the ability to meet standards and the interest in serving, and those two factors are also present on the civilian side. So when we think of those who are able to meet the standards, we are looking at a highly educated population and individuals who’ve spent years building both their academic credentials and their experience. But we also see real competition for those skill sets among the private sector or out in Silicon Valley or up on Wall Street. And so capturing the part of the market that’s interested in taking their talents to serve in federal government where they might earn less and they might have longer days, but they’re really tied to the sense of mission is really important.

Tom Temin Yes, because there’s a difference between the private sector and the public sector in just the norms and culture that’s surrounds civil service and in the way agencies operate. And then there are particular demands on security of people or security practices by people working in national security that may or may not be appealing to people. You know, some agencies, you have to leave your cell phone in a little tiny locker all day, this kind of thing.

Katherine Kuzminski Yeah. And we also see, we conducted a survey of both undergraduate and graduate students and then also folks who are already in the professional workforce or who might have had government service in the past. And we found in our survey sample of about 260 individuals, when we asked the question, would you rather take a job in the federal government, your dream job in the federal government, or a similar job in the private sector that pays twice as much? A What are the considerations that you’re weighing as you make that decision? And B, what is your decision? And it came down to exactly 50-50, which was surprising to us for a group of individuals who took the time to actually take this survey because they must have some sort of interest in government service to sit down and take this time. And so we did a little more digging on, well, what is it? Is it the pay? And the reality is it was not the pay per se. It was the ability to start their career or start their job right away. There’s the expectation among American youth and I think among all generations that if you apply for a job, you get a job offer that you start within a month, certainly within about two weeks is the norm. But what happens if you have to wait a year and a half to two years to make it in the door in the first place? And as I mentioned, they’re already taking out student loan debt, living in an expensive city and taking a series of unpaid internships. It becomes really challenging to hold on to the dream of serving in government if a private sector option is something that’s available right away.

Tom Temin We were speaking with Katherine Kuzminski. She’s senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. And what about the clearance process? Because that seems to gum up the works, and no matter what they do, it always takes a long time. And now there’s reports about the apparatus for doing this as late and not working as well as it should. Costing a lot of money. You just in the news reports of recent days. What about the security clearance process itself? Is that an impediment to building or maintaining that civilian workforce?

Katherine Kuzminski Certainly so. And this is a perennial problem. It’s not a new one. And in fact, the federal government has made great strides since about 2019, when there’s been a series of reforms to increasing the efficiency of the process. But it’s still a lengthy process. And one of the things that was surprising in both our survey work and our group analysis was that the effects for first generation Americans, we simultaneously heard consistently that they had an extra sense of mission. They recognized with this country provided for their family they want to serve, and at the same time that it was really hindering their ability to make it through the clearance process, whether it’s because they still maintain foreign contacts and family members who still live overseas or because it’s a bit more challenging on the financial side of the House. It has led to some frustrations for them in the clearance process, and it was not a question we initially intended to set out looking at what are the impacts on first generation Americans. But it was a fairly significant and repeated finding that we had.

Tom Temin To say nothing about the form you have to fill out, which is epic in its size, and I’m not sure anyone could get all the answers right, even if you were trying to. Now you FOIA’d some data on the profile of people serving from the Office of Personnel Management. What did you need to fire from them and what were you trying to learn and what did you learn from that information?

Katherine Kuzminski Yeah, so one of the questions that we had going in was it had been 20 years since 9/11 when we kicked off this project in 2021 and the national security apparatus grew substantially over those two decades. So one of the questions that we had was, as the national security apparatus grew over time, did representation among the federal government increase proportionately to what we see in society, or did old trends hold? And so what we looked at was data based on gender, race and ethnicity and at each GS level. So the more junior level through the more senior levels. And one of the questions was, who are we recruiting in? And then another question we were looking at was, is there evidence that people who joined the federal government as a civil servant early on in their career, do they have a promotion path and do we retain them? We saw varied outcomes across the federal government. The Department of the Air Force civilian workforce was the most diverse that we saw across the military services and DOD. But still at the aggregate, it’s about 25% of the overall DOD workforce in the GS system are women and 18% are minorities. So we still have some work to do in terms of the national security workforce representing broader U.S. statistics.

Tom Temin Right. I guess the question then becomes, is this a function of the hiring process or is it a function of the applicants? Are the people that you want that are not represented, that are out there doing something else applying in the first place?

Katherine Kuzminski That’s right. And that’s a real question we were looking at. What is the sense of possibility that you could join the federal workforce? And we saw that there is kind of a overrepresentation on the coasts and in big cities and that we’re missing large swaths of Americans, not because they’re not interested, but because they don’t necessarily see a path from how they get from a state school in the Midwest to a career in Washington, D.C..

Tom Temin Yes, because some of the army and military elements and I think some of the civilian national security types of related agencies have established partnerships and grant programs with each HBCU’s and so on, Spanish serving institutions. Maybe over time that will help seed the application pool so that greater representation across the population will be making its way into government.

Katherine Kuzminski That’s right. And also the geographic representation. There are efforts to educate college career counselors or professors. One of the challenges that we heard from our focus group participants was that if you went to a school in the Midwest or in a place that didn’t necessarily have ties to the federal government, even those advising them didn’t know the difference between GS levels or what an appropriate application level might be for a federal position. And that’s something that the federal government or even nonprofits can do a better job of educating the educators on pathways, potential pathways for government service.

Tom Temin And just briefly, what sorts of recommendations have you come up with or you’re still working on those?

Katherine Kuzminski Yeah, So there’s a couple of recommendations. One is at the congressional or executive level. So one of the big challenges we see is that there’s a number of federal fellowships that are provided the Boren Fellowship, Fulbright, that take highly competent Americans and send them overseas to engage with the local population, to really immerse in language learning, particularly for the Boren fellows. Those language skills tend to be languages that matter to our national security infrastructure, which might also mean that they’re coming in contact with individuals who then pulled up the security clearance process on the back end. And so one recommendation is to think through how you start the clearance process for someone you’ve already vetted through the fellowship program before they leave the country and get that process rolling and marking the fact that, you know, that they’re going to come in contact with foreign individuals. That’s the purpose of the federally funded and highly selective program that’s out there. Another area is thinking through how college and university employees can better educate themselves on educating current college students. And we do say that having a university focus is important because most of these jobs do require a college degree, and so enabling them both A, to access the alumni networks that might have already ended up in government and B, just educating them on the different processes. And then lastly, individuals do bear some responsibility as well, but no one tells them upfront that, hey, you might want to keep a list of every address you’ve ever had, or you might need to keep a list of foreign contacts, or if you’re studying overseas, that you need someone to see your living environment to be able to report on that for your security clearance. And it’s too late to learn that when you’ve returned.

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