Recruiting and Retention

What the shutdown says to the tech workforce

young people working

The government shutdown risks steering talented young people away from federal careers. (Stock image)

A week into the partial government shutdown, the ripple effects are becoming clearer. Cybersecurity is in jeopardy while deliverables are at a standstill, and some agencies are hollowed out. But at the center of the shutdown's impact are people.

To be sure, there are orders of magnitude – a canceled convention might affect thousands, but pales in comparison to veterans wondering if their benefits are secure or a federal contractor trying to figure out how to pay the bills. And, looking ahead, a lasting impression will be left on one section of the population in particular: the federal workforce, current and future.

"We're telling them, 'Stay at home.' How do you get good talent to the government when we treat them like that?" Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency director, said at a Politico event on Oct. 8 in Washington. "Some young folks you bring on, you tell them 'I can't pay you for the week you were on furlough.' We're making it hard for them to stay in government, and that's wrong."

Of course, private-sector workers have dealt with furloughs, layoffs and stagnant wages for half a decade as the weak economy has created few jobs and little growth.

But the shutdown is just the most recent affront to public-sector personnel – another symptom of the systemic problems associated with divided government. Increasingly, though, the uncertainty is overshadowing the benefits of relative job security that federal employment has historically offered.

"Why would you want to come work for the government?" asked Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for TechAmerica's global public sector government. "You're disparaged by elected officials about the value you bring to the government, the workforce you're in doesn't have any realistic prospects of salary growth or career growth, and occasionally the government might shut down and you risk not getting paid. It's not a very attractive way to get the right talent."

The U.S. consistently comes up short in terms of finding the right people, especially in jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math fields. This can be seen in examples such as at the Homeland Security Department, where a recent Government Accountability Office report noted one in five cybersecurity roles remain vacant.

In cybersecurity, the shortage of talent and skills is especially significant. The narrow pipeline delivering STEM students is made even worse by a kind of cultural disregard within the government.

"The U.S. has a culture of bastardizing the hacker community as a whole. Other countries treat prolific hackers almost like athletes...as national assets," said Tom Kellerman, vice president for cybersecurity at Trend Micro, a cloud security firm. "We're a country based on capitalism and individualism. If you're technically sophisticated and you know how to become a mission [yourself], why would you want a boss? So how do you change that cultural paradigm in and of itself? I don't know if there are answers to those questions."

That cultural divide extends beyond the hacker community – for example, there are very few women in cybersecurity, and there is extensive focus on computer science degrees and certifications. As a result, whole segments of talent often are overlooked by recruiters and executives.

"We have a people-labor problem; we're not tapping from all parts of the population," said Tara Maller, research fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation. "Aside from shifting the paradigm around from Silicon Valley to national security jobs, we need to also look at that cultural paradigm shift and making these jobs appealing to a broader segment of the population."

But how? Speakers at the Politico event agreed it is a cultural issue, and also that efforts need to start much earlier in education, as young as elementary school. Maller suggested that popular culture could be one avenue – much as shows like "LA Law" drew legions of law school students. Kellerman echoed that, noting that students need to see cybersecurity as being "as cool as being an athlete or a singer."

"We must find a way to light that spark," Hodgkins said.

The 2014 Federal 100

FCW is very pleased to profile the women and men who make up this year's Fed 100. 

Reader comments

Thu, Oct 10, 2013 Chuck the Wise

Ohhhh, those poor downtrodden young techies. It looks like, for just a few seconds longer, that we forgot the sun, moon and stars revolve around them. At what point are we ignoring that they are owed. If they want to go, let them. Just wait until they get out in the unprotected business world, where they can get fired for any reason whatsoever. then they can figure out how to get along with NO paycheck.

Thu, Oct 10, 2013 Patrick United States

I am a contractor for a Federal Agency employed as a cyber security incident responder. I cannot be at my post - even without pay - because federal law prohibits me from working. During this shutdown, I am going without pay, and unlike Civil Service employees, there has been no bill passed by the House to reimburse contractors for their lost wages. This situation creates a very serious danger for our nation caused by a convergence of factors: 1) The information systems of the United States Government are under continual attack from sophisticated and well-funded foreign governments. At this moment, practically no one is working to repel those attacks. We are in fact engaged in a cyber war right now with several nations. And at this moment – no one is guarding the fort. 2) Under normal circumstances, the US Government has a serious shortage of trained personnel to maintain countermeasures to those cyber attacks. Most of the personnel that do exist are now furloughed contractors, who have no hope of reimbursement once they return to work. 3) Since the private sector has a similar shortage of trained cyber security personnel, it behooves those of us who are employed as Federal contractors to seek more reliable employment elsewhere. This will only increase the personnel shortage and exacerbate the risks to the information systems that are an essential part of Federal Government operations. I have no doubt that several hostile foreign governments are currently celebrating their unfettered freedom to compromise the security and operational integrity of the Federal Government’s computers and networks. And I am challenged to express in words how demoralizing it is to be considered “non-essential” and to be summarily tossed off our jobs and told to eek out an existence without pay. Those of us who work as cyber security contractors for the Federal Government are generally paid less than our counterparts in the private sector. Patriotism and pride in our mission is a large part of our compensation. But pride and patriotism won’t pay our bills, feed our children, or compensate for the lost wages caused by unreliable employment.

Thu, Oct 10, 2013

"We're a country based on capitalism and individualism." The person (obviously a socialist) saying this thinks this is something bad. But he has it all backward. First, these people affected by the shutdown are not working in the "capitalism and individualism" part of society which is exactly why the government should not be in this business if the tech sector really needs true support instead of being at the mercy of politicians and high level bureaucrats - most of whom have no idea how to run a business (which is one of the main reasons they are in the government) or are knowledgeable about technology. Second, "capitalism and individualism" is what not only has made this country great but is the only thing keeping it afloat partly because that is what produces the taxes the government operates on. Those countries who "treat prolific hackers almost like athletes...as national assets," do so because they use them as weapons to attack the productive people to steal their hard earned information and money. Greatly reduce the scope of government and those tech people will get treated a lot better doing ethical work in the private sector.

Thu, Oct 10, 2013 Linda Taylor California

As someone who has worked for 54 years full time and seen the evolution of IT from its very beginnings, I can tell you that a great part of the success was due to the fact that women and men contributed equally as programmer/analysts and in all phases of HW and SW development and deployment (although not at equal pay). Also as systems designers, infosecurity specialists, etc. If you could do the job - or be trained to do the job - you, whether man or woman could get and keep a job. In the 70's and 80's, therefore, there was an increase in women graduates with real engineering and with computer science degrees. Over the last 3 decades I have seen this consistently erode and women's interest and contribution to the whole field has diminished. My perspective is as a Past President of both the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP) and the Association for Women in Computing (AWC). I don't have any concrete "way ahead", just the general, pretty much agreed upon one, we must get everyone, including girls and women engaged again and, I think, we can only do that by assuring and proving to them that there are opportunities and a future for them.

Thu, Oct 10, 2013

Much of the talent that this article talks about are those students who are Computer Science majors -- who understand how computers, infrastructures, and software work. Unfortunately, my experience (I am a female Computer Scientist in the DoD) is that Computer Scientists are treated like "red-headed stepchildren" -- they are not treated as equals amongst engineering and technical programs and are not considered qualified (by the DoD) to perform uniquely Computer Science roles, such as Data or System Architects. I cannot recommend to anyone with sort of training a career in the DoD.

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