A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in late 2021 named the cybersecurity skills gap as a leading cause of risk for federal agencies. This issue extends beyond government, where the U.S. has a total cybersecurity workforce gap of more than 2.72 million positions. This makes the problem in government even trickier as agencies have to compete for what limited talent there is with private companies that typically can offer higher salaries and additional employment perks.
As the lack of cyber talent impacts the security of agencies as a whole, the solution in closing this gap lies with every department in a public sector organization – not just IT and HR. Responsibility also lies outside of agency walls, with a wholesale shift in how we think about cybersecurity professionals and the role of cybersecurity in every position.
Look for the helpers
With more and more of our lives being driven online, the people who keep those online environments safe should be positioned as community helpers like police officers, doctors, nurses, and teachers. This is not a category many people see IT professionals falling into, but viewing a cybersecurity career in this light might drive more people to it.
This shift is starting to happen with the inclusion of cybersecurity funding in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Digital infrastructure is being funded alongside roads, bridges, and schools. Communities should look at ways to use these funds for upskilling existing employees and creating an environment in a public sector organization that can compete with the private sector in terms of workplace flexibility and digital maturity.
Start with what you have
With the digitization of many functions of government, roles are quickly evolving and changing. While the fear of “technology taking our jobs” is largely unfounded, there is some truth to it. Manual tasks are being automated, leaving people with more time to focus on different, higher-level thinking work.
The U.S. Digital Corps has been established as a new, two-year fellowship program to bring early career techies into government. Some are calling for a federal digital service academy that could operate like a military academy, but for training civil servants.
Government must undertake a concerted recruiting effort to onboard digital natives and those graduating with cyber degrees. Before these job seekers even learn about the job, they may take a pass on public service work simply due to the onerous application process.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released a webpage “hub” and a memo that provides for new flexibility in terms of strict government hiring requirements. One example is providing direct hire authority, a process that eliminates certain procedures to expedite hiring. It also allows for agencies to offer leave flexibilities, pay bumps for new employees, and student loan repayment programs to attract talent.
In order to compete with private sector companies, government has to be able to match the flexibility and technical maturity of commercial companies. This includes allowing for hybrid work and access to modern, consumer-like applications in the workplace.
While “beggars can’t be choosers” when it comes to a dearth of cyber candidates, agencies do need to take a close look at the demographics of the workforce they are hiring. Currently, women make up only 24% of the field of cybersecurity. Agencies should also look across all ethnicities to bring more holistic perspectives into the complex cyber issues. For example, having a diverse workforce develop biometric technologies has proven to make algorithms more accurate in correctly identifying people of all races.
A recent study showed that only 32% of agencies feel prepared to address the growing demands to reskill and upskill current employees, but if cyber recruiting becomes a team sport, it is possible to close the skill gap faster than expected. To make this happen agencies need to:
- Elevate the impact of cyber jobs
- Retrain existing employees
- Expand recruitment pools
- Change workplace culture
With this focus across an agency, it can build the talent needed in today’s digital world.
As the founder of GovEvents and GovWhitePapers, Kerry Rea is on a mission to help businesses interact with, evolve, and serve the government. With 25+ years of experience in the information technology and government industries, Kerry drives the overall strategy and oversees operations for both companies. She has also served in executive marketing roles at a number of government IT providers.