This Program Could Help Pay Off Your Student Loans

Imagine working at the CIA for two years and then being offered the chance to apply to a private sector company like Microsoft or Mastercard. Once you get your private sector job, you’re offered up to $75,000 in student loan assistance. For the highly qualified recent graduates in cybersecurity-related fields selected for the Cybersecurity Talent Initiative, this will be their reality.

However, they have to apply to the program first. The Partnership for Public Service, Mastercard, Microsoft, and Workday, a company that offers modern workforce management tools, launched the program last week in collaboration with multiple defense and civilian agencies. The deadline to apply is Oct. 18. Agencies will make offers by the spring of 2020 and participants will begin their two years in the public sector in the summer or fall of 2020.

This cross-sector effort was developed to recruit the nation’s top cybersecurity talent. According to Cyberseek, there were more than 313,000 cybersecurity job openings in the U.S. from September 2017 to August 2018, indicating a significant talent gap. While available talent has appeared to diminish, the demand for cybersecurity has increased. The Cybersecurity Talent Initiative was created to address this gap by providing a cross-sector experience for recent graduates who have studied cybersecurity and meet the high criteria needed to thrive at places like Microsoft and the CIA.

Participants chosen for the program will be offered a two-year placement at a federal agency in a cybersecurity role. Participating federal agencies include the Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Election Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Naval Intelligence Office, and the Small Business Administration.

Before the end of their two years in the public sector, participants will be able to opt for a full-time position with Mastercard, Microsoft, or Workday, the private sector partners of the program, and will receive up to $75,000 in student loan assistance when hired by one of these companies. They could also choose to stay with government.

GovLoop interviewed Alexander N.M. Niejelow, Senior Vice President of Cybersecurity Coordination and Advocacy at Mastercard, and Brig. Gen. Jennifer Buckner, Director of Headquarters, Department of the Army’s Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Information Operations to gain insight on the public-private partnership.

The responses below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GOVLOOP: What exactly spurred your agency or company to participate in this program and who was involved with it?

NIEJELOW: The genesis of this was the work that our CEO Ajay Banga and I and our team members did. Toward the end of the Obama administration, we began to look at a series of recommendations for the federal government and private sector around what challenges we faced immediately and areas of opportunity in the short- and long-term around cybersecurity. This issue in particular really resonated as a priority and a need.

The program comes back to the critical issue of cybersecurity and the need in that space, both on the size of the gap that continues to grow and exists today, but also on the need to think creatively. This was the mandate our executives came to me and to our team about, about how to think about a different way to catalyze an opportunity and incentivize an opportunity for individuals pursuing undergraduate and advanced degrees, to both help the federal government, and also to come to our companies where we similarly have need.

We want better-trained and better-equipped cybersecurity professionals, both because of the experience they’ve had in government, and the leadership development and career development work that occurs as part of this program during the time in government.

At the end of the day, MasterCard believes in this for two reasons: One, it matters to us as a company because it helps us protect the digital economy. Secondly, it matters because we believe in the next set of cyber talent, enabling them to do what they do so well and provide them with this opportunity. This is an important role for us.

BUCKNER: I really appreciate the Partnership for Public Service. We need people to help facilitate the linkage to where people can put their skills to work. We do have a great need for cybersecurity specialists in the federal community. So, it makes sense that we would also want to help folks plan for a job immediately after graduation. We appreciate that they can take their skills and apply them very quickly in government service.

I did not know this before I worked with the Partnership, but actually, fewer than 6% of our population would consider a job in government after graduating. From skills and talent standpoints, we would like to raise that number because we have some phenomenal people working across government.

We want to expose government service to more people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider it as a career option. Once you start doing this, once you start learning who the people are who work in government, once you’re doing work that makes a difference in our national security, we are confident that exposure will incentivize more young people to stay with the government. Even if they don’t stay, they have that experience in government for later on.

This is a win-win with private sector companies too because I think that they would also benefit from a government internship. We manifest legal, moral and ethical approaches toward cybersecurity. The participants might go and work in a private sector company, but they would have that rounding in terms of how their private sector work also supports the government. I think this makes this really a win-win-win.

GOVLOOP: Why is it necessary to partner with the public sector and introduce or reinforce the notion of public-private sector mobility?

NIEJELOW: The workforce continues to rapidly change. This program really was constructed around the value of the experiences and skill sets that a federal government experience brings to an individual. More broadly, and more unique to this country, is the fact that in cybersecurity a partnership between the private sector and federal government is essential. We think this is an important way to further that dynamic.

GOVLOOP: What positions are you looking to fill? What skills would your ideal applicant possess?

BUCKNER: We’ve painted a broad brush here. Many of the positions deal with cybersecurity and defensive type operations, for example, Army cyber operations in immigration centers or defending our military networks. They could also be employed as analysts, in terms of understanding network traffic and carrying out work against our adversaries.

GOVLOOP: How will you measure the general success of the program? What are the metrics you’ll use?

NIEJELOW: The measure of success here is going to be growing the companies and participants and continuing to add federal agencies to the group. That was the intent here, to bring this program out to the public and to begin growing it together on our shoulders.

BUCKNER: This is one of those long-term returns on investment that we have to exercise a little patience in. I think that if we have six people, for example, working in the Army as a part of this initiative in the first year, I think that’s a huge success …. One true measure of success is if any of them leave, work outside in the private sector, but then are inclined to come back in and serve the government in a different way in the future. That’s an interesting metric. We won’t know that for a couple of years, but in order to get there, we have to start somewhere. It’s a good start.

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