The labor pool has rapidly expanded in recent months as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and millions of Americans are still without work. Yet even amid historic levels of unemployment, the federal government is having a hard time finding talent. Specifically, government agencies are experiencing a roughly 40% vacancy in public sector cybersecurity jobs.
Add that to the ever-mounting threat of a major cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure, and you have a big problem — yet no one in the public sector seems to have an adequate solution.
The tech talent gap has been well-documented. And as companies continue to pursue digital transformation initiatives, the demand for technological expertise in the private sector will only grow. Modern businesses are collecting data from customers and employees at a staggering rate, and that data must be protected. That reality makes cybersecurity professionals highly sought after and increasingly harder to find.
Although top tech companies can entice these employees with jaw-dropping compensation packages and enviable perks, the federal government — which has its own data to protect — doesn’t have the same resources, not to mention the same appeal. So how can it compete?
In an effort to address the talent void, the president recently signed an executive order that created a program for developing security capabilities among current government employees. The mandate contains rough guidelines for identifying, evaluating and training prospective candidates, and it has established the foundation of what officials are calling the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy.
However, given the fact that the first cohort to complete the program resulted in just one job placement (mainly due to the rigidity of the government pay system), it’s clear that alternative solutions are needed.
Stumbling Out of the Gate
The first iteration of the new program supposedly attracted more than 1,500 applicants. Yet only around 30 individuals were ultimately accepted for training. Most participants saw the new Reskilling Academy not as a gateway to an entry-level cybersecurity position, but as a professional development opportunity.
In the words of one graduate, an entry-level position would be a “step down in terms of pay and seniority.” Lacking the proper framework to usher program graduates into new roles, the government squandered a real opportunity — and it might have even pushed some graduates to look for new jobs in the private sector.
The program isn’t dead, though. The government recently announced a goal to expand the Reskilling Academy across more agencies to retrain some 400,000 employees. But to achieve this, program administrators must fundamentally rethink the recruitment and assessment process. They’ll also need to work quickly.
Although government officials were right in assuming that many federal employees have the desire to learn new skills, they failed to consider the career paths of applicants in their assessment of candidates. As a result, the program failed to attract the right people.
Fixing the public sector’s recruitment problem isn’t just a matter of cybersecurity — it’s a matter of national security. Without the right talent to protect it, our nation’s digital infrastructure is vulnerable to criminals and malevolent foreign governments. Fortunately, there are several ways that the DHS can address this issue. Here are three potential solutions:
1. Open up the applicant pool. Not only should federal agencies be looking internally to find suitable candidates for retraining, but they should also be looking at individuals in the private sector and other institutions.
Rather than attracting candidates hoping to start a fulfilling cybersecurity career in the federal space, the first iteration of the program targeted senior-level government employees who had little interest in taking entry-level jobs. There are, however, people with technical acumen and passion for the security field outside of the federal workforce. Finding those individuals is paramount.
Many agencies have found innovative ways to prepare their employees for the jobs of the future. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is one such example. NGA partnered with my company, a nonprofit offering free training in computer programming, to build a retraining-to-job pipeline that would equip individuals of varying backgrounds with the skills needed in the geographic information systems career field. These types of partnerships must become more common if agencies are to close the talent gap in other technical fields.
2. Introduce more flexibility. The federal hiring and promotion process is extremely structured for many reasons. Without introducing some degree of flexibility to recruitment, however, government agencies will continue to miss out on the talent they need. Luckily, there’s a blueprint for change.
In order to ensure it had the necessary human resources to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, the United States Office of Personnel Management waived certain recruiting rules and added hiring incentives, citing a “critical agency need.” The enormity of the current talent shortage certainly constitutes a critical need, and federal agencies must treat it as such. Modifying eligibility requirements and approval processes would speed up the hiring process and give government employers the ability to cast a wider net during recruitment.
3. Explore different training tactics. Thus far, the Reskilling Academy’s training has been carried out as a full-time on-site program. But in an age when remote work and online learning have become commonplace (and accelerated even more following COVID-19), anyone with a computer and an internet connection can develop new skills.
By expanding the current program to include part-time and online training options, federal agencies can significantly improve accessibility. This would allow talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who might have obligations or circumstances preventing participation in on-site classes to gain eligibility for the program. That’s a win for everyone.
The Reskilling Academy is a small step in the right direction, but to attract smart, skilled, and driven candidates to any retraining program, government employers must adopt new ways of thinking. The public sector is often viewed as rigid and notoriously slow to evolve. But in many ways, our government has proven that it can adapt when the pressure is great enough. The pressure to address the current talent shortage is mounting, and the problem will grow bigger the longer it lingers. Success will require change, and failure is simply not an option.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals. As one of the winners of the 2017 MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, LaunchCode has been recognized for expanding “the tech workforce by providing free coding education to disadvantaged job seekers.”