Friday, April 17, 2015

The cyber-threat to Federal employment

Anyone who’s looked into working for the Federal government recently has noticed a strong push for IT professionals, and know they could be out of luck if they don’t have that background.  For example, current students interested in an internship with the FBI during the summer of 2015 realized quickly that the only internship available is the “Cyber Internship,” which is closed to anyone not studying a cyber-related field.  So why the push for IT professionals? 

Cyber threats are at an all-time high, with the recent attacks against civilian targets such as Sony, Target, and Anthem emphasizing the danger.  Even more worrisome is the actions of state actors such as China (here, here, and here).  The high threat environment means that the US government needs to increase its capabilities, which means it needs to hire more people.  Unfortunately, they can’t compete with the civilian sector.   

The NSA is bleeding talent at an alarming rate.  There was a higher incident of federal cyber professionals leaving the government than those being hired for the second straight year in 2014.  The most worrisome statistic, however, is the composition of those leaving.  Almost 50% of the NSA’s workforce is over 50 years old, and less than a quarter of them are under 30.  In what is generally understood to be a young person’s game, there aren’t very many young people interested in what the government is offering.  It’s all about the money.  The NSA will pay entry-level employees $66,568 a year, but after working there for a few years, employees can hop the fence to make twice as much, and sometimes more.  In the tradition bound bureaucracy of government work, seniority is the only way to receive pay increases, and this is unappealing to younger employees who see how much their skills are valued on the outside.  Thus the Federal government is becoming a training ground for cyber-professionals to gain valuable experience, training, and security clearances, and then jump ship for bluer waters. 

There is no quick fix.  Even with the approval of Congress to allow the NSA to avoid the standard federal hiring procedures and to grant substantial retention bonuses among other benefits, they are still losing people.  The entire IT market is suffering from a shortage of personnel, and until the civilian market comes closer to filling its needs, the government is going to be competing against a glut of companies that are capable of giving individuals substantial amounts of money.  This is similar to the recruiting demands that the military had in the midst of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, when E-1 privates just out of high school were being offered $40,000 signing bonuses for enlisting, and some military jobs were getting $150,000 as a retention offer.  Throwing money at the problem was an effective method then, and it seems to be the only option the US government has to compete with the civilian sector, which means fewer available to hire non-cyber professionals.  

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