Dec 31 2009

Training to Hire

Given the high demand for skilled IT security employees, agencies have a farm system in place to produce talented workers who are ready to serve.

Photo: Drake Sorey
“These students are not going to come in as a typical employee who needs their hand held but will be able to take on a great deal of responsibility immediately,” the National Science Foundation’s Dr. Diana L. Burley says.

If an agency is having trouble recruiting and hiring skilled systems security employees, it can turn to the government’s own farm system, so to speak: the Federal Cyber Service Scholarship for Service (SFS) program.

Defense Department agencies are picking up the majority of cybersecurity and information assurance experts graduating from the five-year-old SFS, but civilian agencies, including Justice, Education, and even the Smithsonian, are snapping up students as well.

“DOD is picking up SFS graduates two to one over the rate the civilian side of the government is picking them up,” says Preston Gillmore, an information systems security program manager for the Agriculture Department, who is putting together an alumni organization for SFS graduates. “The civilian side is losing out, and the civilian side is the one the Office of Management and Budget gives the worst grades to for security.”

It was President Clinton who created SFS to improve the government’s capacity to safeguard civilian agency data, he points out. The program combines scholarships and competitive grants to support cybersecurity programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels and fund university research on information security.

To make the most of the program, agencies need to understand how it works. They also need to make the most use of the students, who will come to jobs with advanced technical skills. To get the students into jobs quickly, the IT and systems security staff also need to work with the human resources offices to resolve any hiring hurdles. Plus, agencies can use the program as a source of not just employees but for IT security and information assurance R&D.

“Many agencies don’t know about the program and that’s something we need to improve upon,” says Rayford Vaughn, a professor at Mississippi State University and director for the Center for Computer Security Research. “The students that are part of the Cyber Corps program are the young seed corn the government needs because the government has an aging workforce in the technical area, and they’ve been having trouble bringing in young, energetic talent with technical skills.”

Competition for grant money and scholarship funds is intense among the 85 schools that participate in the SFS program, which the National Science Foundation manages in partnership with the Homeland Security Department’s National Cyber Security Division and with management assistance from the Office of Personnel Management.

Ready to Work

Students seeking the scholarships must rise above the competition and show a commitment to working on critical national security issues. “This is not a program where people come in and say ‘I’m going to get a free education, work for two years and leave,’ ” says Dr. ­Diana L. Burley, who directs the SFS program for NSF.

85 The number of schools that participate in the Federal Cyber Service Scholarship for Service program.

Given their specialization, it’s not surprising that students from the program are typically about two years ahead of the learning curve compared to students coming from a more generic computer science program, Burley estimates.

“These students are not going to come in as a typical employee who needs their hand held but will be able to take on a great deal of responsibility immediately,” she explains. “The agencies should exploit that to their advantage.”

One reason that students can ramp up so quickly is that they tend to specialize in one of three areas: hard-core computer engineering, cybersecurity management or information assurance policy. They’ve also completed at least one summer internship with the government, which acclimates them to federal work, Gillmore points out.

Bottom Line

Agencies will find they can save money by hiring SFS students because they won’t have to provide the specialized training that students coming from a more typical IT program need. SFS students also have been vetted for problems that might prevent them from passing security clearances. The program also offers hiring flexibilities and reduced paperwork requirements that help get students onboard quickly, Burley adds.

Despite those advantages, “it can be a battle getting those students hired,” Vaughn says. “OPM has been wonderful, but dealing with human resources at the agencies has been a challenge. There’s not a smooth, easy way for a student to get hired.”

Burley points out that OPM offers direct hire authority for some SFS students. “We would support an expansion of that authority to facilitate the hiring process,” she says.

Even if your agency hasn’t hired an SFS graduate, it can still take advantage of the program. Another facet of the program links agencies to university researchers at the Centers for Academic Excellence. “We receive a set of hard problems in cybersecurity and information assurance from an agency and send those out to our academic institutions and have their students work on problems that exist today,” Burley says.

Several agencies have developed even deeper ties to universities by providing research dollars and hiring academic liaisons to improve relationships with the faculty. “There’s quite a bit of overlap, and the agencies are becoming familiar with the academic institutions. That connection continues to strengthen,” Burley says.

The hope is that through those connections, the program will produce highly qualified students not in an academic bubble but with strong ties to real-world issues and the skill sets needed to hit the ground running. What remains to be seen is whether agencies will put those skills to the right use and whether they can get enough runners on the team to replace those who plan to turn in their uniforms in the years ahead.