Mar 03 2023

Federal Agencies Ramp Up Their Cyber Hiring Efforts

To help close the cybersecurity talent gap, agencies are getting creative in how they search for and recruit employees.

Experts are worried about the future of the federal cyber workforce.

There are “significant gaps,” especially in recruiting and retaining younger cyber professionals, says Michelle Amante, vice president of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service. She has called for “a shared government responsibility for recruiting and training the next generation of technologists.”

That’s not easily achieved. There is “a formidable gap in available talent” when it comes to cybersecurity, with global demand outpacing supply by some 3.4 million people, according to the cybersecurity professional organization ISC2. And federal agencies face special challenges as they compete for talent.

Federal hiring processes are notoriously slow, and government pays cyber professionals an average of 14 percent less than the private sector, according to labor market research firm Lightcast. There’s an even wider disparity for early-career workers.

Federal executive orders add to the pressure, with calls for agencies to improve customer service, implement zero-trust architecture and modernize in general. All these require agencies to rethink the way they search for employees. Many are rising to the challenge with creative initiatives to try to close the cybersecurity talent gap.

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Agencies Implement a Mix of Hiring Strategies

Agencies have implemented a variety of mechanisms aimed at reaching more candidates, making salaries more competitive and speeding up the hiring process. At the CIA, for example, the IT team is using social media to cast a wider recruitment net.

“We’re trying to pivot from the traditional post-and-pray approach,” says Theresa Randall, deputy chief of the CIA’s Talent Acquisition Office. “We’re being more proactive, and we’re going to where the talent is — and that’s online. We’re going to the digital world to find the digital workforce of the future.”

When it comes to cyber recruiting, “we have ads that stream on various services, and CIA has active social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube,” she says. “We’re trying to meet people where they are to share information on our career opportunities.”

At the Department of Energy, a robust internship program is helping widen the scope of recruiting.

DOE recently launched its Omni Technology Alliance Internship Program, a 10-week rotational summer internship program for college and graduate students targeted at cybersecurity, says Robert Gettings, a program analyst in the department’s Office of the CIO.

“A lot of internships are either unpaid or pay a small stipend, so your average family can’t afford to have their kid at school in an internship,” he says. “This program gives a stipend that covers the students’ living wages, their housing, their transportation, relocation expenses. That way, we widen the pool of people who are able to take advantage of it.”

DIVE DEEPER: Why a ‘customers first’ approach is key in government IT modernization.

In the first cohort, completed in August, DOE selected 66 interns from among 400 applicants, Gettings says. The agency opened up the program for the second year this fall.

By getting emerging cyber professionals in the door, the program helps the agency build a talent pipeline.

“Interns will have spent three summers working for the department on some of the coolest mission work there is,” Gettings says. “And at the end of it, they’re also getting a security clearance. They will have been mentored by top scientists. They’ll be working on protecting the nation’s infrastructure. So, we hope that they stick with it.”

At the Office of Personnel Management, CISO James Saunders says messaging is key to recruiting, especially when looking for more seasoned cyber talent. He leverages the agency’s aggressive modernization efforts as a prime selling point.

“In recruiting senior and midlevel individuals, we’re talking about the great cyber work we’re doing. That’s what catches people’s interest,” he says.

“I do speaking engagements and webinars to get the message out that OPM is in the middle of a technology modernization. We’re sprinting to the cloud. We’re doing zero trust,” Saunders says. “Those things get ears perked up because who doesn’t want to be part of a transformation effort?”

Theresa Randall
We’re being more proactive, and we’re going to where the talent is — and that’s online. We’re going to the digital world to find the digital workforce of the future.”

Theresa Randall Deputy Chief, CIA’s Talent Acquisition Office

How Agencies are Overhauling the Hiring Process

The Department of Homeland Security has made an even more comprehensive push to jump-start its cyber hiring.

“We launched the DHS Cybersecurity Service last year, and it is one of the most, if not the most, significant or ambitious changes to how the federal government recruits, hires and retains cybersecurity personnel,” CIO Eric Hysen says.

The Cybersecurity Service offers streamlined hiring processes, more competitive compensation structures and career development opportunities. It “still meets the unique requirements of the federal government, but it looks a lot closer to the systems that I used in the private sector,” says Hysen, who previously worked as a program manager at Google.

DHS has widened its aperture as it evaluates potential cyber hires. “We are able to evaluate candidates based on technical skills, not just based on a lengthy federal resume. We have more flexibility in how we match them to different roles and how we offer compensation that can more closely compete with the private sector,” Hysen says.

DHS had to get explicit congressional authority to increase its cyber salaries — an avenue that other agencies may be unable to pursue. However, other aspects of what DHS is doing could be available across the federal space, Hysen says.

For example, “there’s a tremendous amount of flexibility” in how an agency evaluates potential hires, he says. DHS is using the Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments process for its large hiring push around improved customer experience. That’s a model that other agencies could replicate in the search for cyber talent.

READ MORE: Review the latest tech tools improving customer and employee experiences.

“We have subject matter experts — practicing designers, product managers, engineers — who are reviewing the resumes rather than having HR professionals take that first step. We’re then asking for written assessments and doing technical interviews with subject matter experts” at the start of the hiring process, Hysen says.

That broad-lens approach can help agencies identify and onboard candidates who might be overlooked in a more conventional recruiting effort. For this strategy to work, however, leadership may need to drive a cultural shift. “This is not your traditional federal hiring,” Hysen says.

In ramping up the Cybersecurity Service, “the first thing that we’ve learned is there is a lot more involvement required from hiring managers and our employees overall throughout the hiring process — participating in evaluating assessments, interviewing candidates and helping close them once they get an offer,” he says.

While the pivot takes work, DHS already sees positive results.

With an initial focus on hiring for the Office of the CIO and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, “we’ve issued over 100 offers to date,” Hysen says. “We’re bringing folks into our two organizations first. We’re then going to expand to additional roles, skill sets and other parts of the department.”

Leveraging Social Media to Optimize Talent Acquisition

While internships and social media can help federal agencies cast a wider net, reeling in the catch remains problematic, given the often protracted timelines involved in federal hiring. Naturally, agencies are looking for tools to accelerate the process.

At the CIA, Randall says the agency leverages modernized tools in support of more effective and timely engagements with potential hires. “We are in the midst of digitizing a lot of our processes,” she says. “We want to be more accessible, with a focus on electronic communications to connect directly with applicants and reduce timelines.”

At DOE, Gettings is a big fan of the direct hire authority, which “cuts out a couple of steps in the hiring process,” he says. “OPM allows for direct hire authority for critical needs and specific occupations, and cybersecurity is one of the few areas where the government can do a direct hire.”

OPM’s Saunders is also a proponent of this approach.

“We use the direct hire authorities that OPM offers, which helps, especially for cyber talent and IT talent,” he says. “It’s my favorite way to hire individuals into the cybersecurity division. It’s really my primary method at this point, versus the traditional approach, which has a few more requirements that definitely slow down the process.”

Image by Staff Artist

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