Creating a more secure nation means public service hiring practices need an overhaul
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The public sector has over 33,000 openings in cybersecurity. This means that about one in three possible public sector cybersecurity jobs is currently unfilled. It also means that we are leaving our country vulnerable to future attacks in cyberspace if we do not have the experts we need to update information technology systems, analyze network traffic, research emerging tools, respond to cyber incidents, coordinate with other sectors, and the myriad other responsibilities that fall to the federal cyber workforce.

The federal government faces two critical challenges in filling federal cybersecurity jobs. First, we must inspire more professionals with critical cyber skills to consider careers in government. There is an urgent need to act now to reform how the U.S. government recruits, develops, and retains its workforce in order to remain technologically adept and secure from attacks of significant consequence in cyberspace; specifically, streamlining hiring processes and developing innovative approaches in recruiting to attract and retain world-class talent.

Second, the nation must do more to cultivate cyber talent nationwide. That is to say, we have to grow the size of the cyber workforce pie, not just cut the government a larger slice of it. In order to accomplish this, Congress needs to invest in the American people and the security of the nation with meaningful and sustained support for cyber workforce development efforts.

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We know that public servants are vital to the security and well-being of the nation, yet outdated rules and practices make it difficult to hire and retain the best talent by creating unnecessary delay, unpredictability, and frustration for talented individuals who aspire to serve the public. To address these challenges, three different U.S. federal commissions have made recommendations to fix federal hiring, inspire the next generation to public service, and empower agencies to build their workforce to meet evolving needs and to better serve the American people.

The Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s March 2020 report noted the critical importance, and significant dearth, of cybersecurity talent for an effective U.S. cybersecurity strategy. To increase the number of individuals with digital talent who can meet this critical shortfall, the Commission recommended that the federal government expand existing scholarship-for-service initiatives and create additional developmental pathways to public service to incorporate more hands-on learning and tap into talent with unconventional professional or educational backgrounds. An immediate and proven vehicle is the National Science Foundation’s CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program which offers financial support to students studying cybersecurity, in exchange for a public service term upon graduation. Since the program’s inception in 2001, it has graduated roughly 3,600 students, sending them into cyber careers in the public sector. The Solarium Commission recommends increasing the funding to the program over a period of 10 years to allow for 2,000 graduating CyberCorps students per year.

Similarly, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service proposes that Congress create new pipelines from postsecondary education to public service, starting with a new Public Service Corps, similar to the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), in which agencies would offer scholarships to university students in exchange for a four-year public service commitment met through employment at the agency that provided the scholarship.

To better enable the government to respond to national emergencies that exhaust its cyber capacity, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service also recommends the creation of a Civilian Cybersecurity Reserve (CCR) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The CCR would enable DHS and the NSA to quickly expand their cybersecurity workforces with experts who have prior government experience as well as the necessary technical skills, platform knowledge, and clearance to perform sensitive work. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission makes a similar recommendation for the Department of Defense (DoD), assessing the need for a military cyber reserve to include non-traditional options to ensure the DoD is prepared to mobilize a surge capacity in times of crisis or conflict. Beyond the obvious benefits of increasing the pool of available talent, these programs also imbue participating workers with a greater sense of professional fulfillment that derives from public service while strengthening beneficial relationships and collaboration between the private and public sector.

And as the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service reminds us, public service roles offer the opportunity to protect the country while gaining work experience that can be found nowhere else. This is particularly true for career tracks, like cyber, where the competition for talent is most intense. While government should and does make every effort to ensure financial compensation is competitive with the private sector through excepted service systems, the government’s greatest advantage is more often found in the work itself. The cyber challenges the government confronts on a daily basis and the data and tools it uses to do so create a professional experience that is wholly unique. That experience, underpinned by a mission that cannot be replicated in the private sector, creates both a recruiting advantage and a foundation for lifelong productivity.

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The reasons to work in government are clear, but they must be supported by recruitment, hiring, and development processes that help encourage, rather than deter, talented individuals serving. To capitalize on its inherent advantages, the government must present clear and compelling opportunities to prospective workers early in their decision cycles, demonstrate a capacity and willingness to invest in their whole-of-career development, and transform personnel systems to meet the expectations of a workforce that equates timely decisions with a promise of respect for the value of their skills and a commitment to public service.

We want all Americans inspired and eager to serve – to join the mission and make our nation more secure. That starts with public service hiring reform.

Dr. Joe Heck is chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He is a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve and represented Nevada’s 3rd District in the House of Representatives from 2011-2017. Mr. John C. "Chris" Inglis is a commissioner for the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission and a former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency. He currently serves as the Looker Distinguished Visiting Professor of Cyber Studies at the United States Naval Academy.