DHS Tests On-the-Spot Hiring for Cyber Ninjas

The Department of Homeland Security is rolling out on-the-spot hiring and adopting other time-saving moves to cut the time it takes to identify and bring on board skilled cyber talent.

Phyllis Schneck, DHSIn an exclusive interview with GovTechWorks, Phyllis Schneck, DHS’s deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications for the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), said she aims to slash the six- to nine-month federal hiring process as she tries to fill “thousands” of cybersecurity jobs across the agency.

Cyber talent is in short supply in both the public and private sectors. The number of private-sector vacancies stood at 209,000 in March 2015, according to the most recent numbers available, from a Stanford University research project. And 60 percent of U.S. government IT leaders reported in 2015 they do not have enough cybersecurity personnel to meet the mission, according to (ISC)2’s 2015 Global Information Security Workforce Study. The 2016 study is under way now.

Schneck’s strategy leverages legislation passed two years ago promising to “improve DHS’s cybersecurity capabilities by streamlining the hiring process for recruiting and retaining qualified cyber professionals.”

Back then, Schneck was chief technology officer for global public sector at McAfee, Inc. Now it’s her job to bring a private-sector sensibility to the job and bring more cyber talent into the government more quickly.

“This is not yesterday’s government. DHS is taking a very modern look at hiring,” Schneck said. For evidence she points to an upcoming hiring fair July 27-28 at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., where the department will be making on-the-spot job offers for the first time ever.

The offers will be provisional – pending security clearance and background checks – but the process should cut down recruiting time substantially. That’s still a long time – the typical security clearance took 116 days from start to finish in the first quarter of the fiscal year, according to the latest quarterly update on Performance.Gov.

“We are doing everything we can to look at the process, to shorten the time it takes,” Schneck said. “We want to change that experience from the time you meet us to the time you get here, to change the process so it is really streamlined.”

The hiring fairs are one step, but there are others. DHS doesn’t control the security clearance process, which is controlled by other agencies. But it can control its own internal processes. Within DHS, Schneck said, an application should “travel less,” hitting fewer desks as it makes the rounds of needed approvals. In the past, an entire stack of applications could be delayed due to a problem with just one of the documents; now, Schneck said, hiring managers are advised to pull out the problem applications and let others continue; once issues are resolved, the application in question can move on, as well.

Schneck said hiring times are already speeding up, but said it’s too soon to quantify results.

Opening Eyes
Across the IT spectrum, the hardest people to locate and hire are experienced cyber professionals with high-level certifications. Cyber is still a comparatively new discipline, demand for these skilled professionals is high in both the commercial and public sector and commercial salaries can exceed government maximums.

“The spectrum of skill sets we need is very, very wide,” she said. Forensics, data mining, systems engineering, incident response: All the main cyber roles show vacancies. The problem lies less in the realm of specific skills shortages, and more in the arena of public relations, she said. Public service doesn’t sell itself well.

“The hardest part has been attracting them to government,” she said. “I know we have a great mission, but I don’t think we always do a good enough job of expressing the excitement around it.”

Information security vacancies are everywhere, ranging from hundreds of open jobs for network security specialists at Cisco to fewer than 20 at Amazon Web Services. For DHS, the Defense Department and government contractors, the challenge is made more complex by the additional burden of security clearances. General Dynamics Information Technology, for example, lists hundreds of vacancies today, almost all of which require a clearance.

Waiting for a clearance takes time, but it shouldn’t be seen as a roadblock to the excitement, challenges and opportunities of working in the public sector. Even though she held a security clearance while in the corporate world, Schneck said it was only after coming on board at DHS that she fully realized “how much people in government do and how hard they work,” she said.

She recalled an early visit to an undisclosed DHS cyber facility. “It was eye opening. There is a whole world of people who are working 24/7 on some very difficult and important items that would sharpen anyone’s skill set,” she said. “But you don’t know everything until you are inside. You never really see the guts of how this work is being done to ensure the population is not harmed.”

Now DHS is trying to shine a light on that excitement through public job fairs and other means to attract talented people to a critical national mission. DHS leaders are raising their public profile, spending more time at industry gatherings and investing in future and emerging cyber professionals:

  • The Cybersecurity Internship Program gives current students the chance to work alongside DHS cyber leaders on real-world projects involving identification and analysis of malicious code, forensics analysis, incident handling, intrusion detection and prevention, and software assurance.
  • Students in the Secretary’s Honors Program Cyber Student Volunteer Initiative learn about the DHS cybersecurity mission, complete hands-on cybersecurity work and build technical experience
  • DHS also partners with the National Science Foundation on the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program, which offers scholarships to outstanding undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students in exchange for government service to a federal agency.
  • For more seasoned professionals, the Loaned Executive Program brings in industry leaders to share their expertise and get a taste of the DHS mission during short-term stints.

Those student-oriented programs may be especially valuable at a time when many young people are shying away from public service. “The greatest challenge for federal agencies is recruiting and retaining younger employees, those who represent the foundation of the workforce in the years ahead,” according to Improving the Employee Experience, a report from the Partnership for Public Service.

All these efforts ultimately help boost the department’s visibility. “The more people know what we do, the more the ones with those very wide skill sets are likely to approach us,” Schneck said.

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