US government struggling to attract, retain cybersecurity experts

In an effort to shore up the United States government's data protection capabilities, both now and into the future, several departments recently announced plans to increase their cybersecurity staffs. However, such efforts are complicated by a number of obstacles that have made it difficult for the federal government to both attract and retain talented professionals in this field.

Incoming cybersecurity forces
In March, during a retirement ceremony for Director of the NSA Keith Alexander, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced plans to increase the Pentagon's total cybersecurity force to more than 6,000 in 2016. He noted that these professionals will be integrated with the U.S.'s worldwide combat command network.

"To accomplish this goal, we are recruiting talent from everywhere," said Hagel. "But we're also encouraging people already here in the military, in DOD, to develop…cyber skills."

Similarly, Businessweek reported that FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles Gilgen revealed that the agency aims to hire an additional 1,000 analysts and 1,000 agents for its cyber division this year.

Hiring difficulties
The news source noted that these plans are particularly ambitious in light of the government's track record of recruiting cybersecurity professionals. One of the most prominent programs meant to achieve this end is the CyberCorps, or Scholarship for Service. This program provides tuition and other financial assistance for students who commit to serve the government for several years following their graduation. Despite an annual budget of $45 million, this program has only produced 1,554 graduates.

"You would think, with all those benefits and a hot area, cybersecurity, that people would just be pouring into the program," said Victor Piotrowski, lead program director for CyberCorps at the National Science Foundation, Businessweek reported. "We have a very, very tiny pipeline."

There are several reasons why this is the case. Among the most obvious and significant, according to the news source, is that the government cannot afford to offer salaries high enough to compete with the private sector. Demand for skilled IT workers, and particularly data security experts, is growing across the board, and many companies are willing to pay a high price to employ these professionals. This makes programs such as the CyberCorps less tempting.

The government has also struggled to attract cybersecurity talent because of the inherent delays built into its hiring processes, Reuters reported. It takes months for applicants to make their way through the federal hiring system, whereas the private sector is significantly faster.

"Even when somebody is patriotic and wants to do their duty for the nation, if they're really good they're not going to wait six months to get hired," said Mark Weatherford, former cyber chief at the Department of Homeland Security, Reuters reported.

Considering all of these challenges, many federal agencies must turn to third-party cybersecurity and information assurance firms to protect their sensitive data assets from evolving external threats.