Filling the ranks

Luring computer security experts away from private-sector opportunities and into government jobs has long been a problem, federal information technology managers say — and Sept. 11 only made that problem worse.

After trying for weeks to fill an IT security position at the GS-15 level, for example, Sallie McDonald, assistant commissioner for information assurance and critical infrastructure protection at the General Services Administration, finally decided early last month to splurge on a large classified ad in the Washington Post. Only one application has arrived in the mail so far, McDonald said.

Because the ad ran right when the GSA mailroom was closed because of the anthrax scare, "I don't know whether I'm anthrax-challenged, or [the lack of response is] a matter of nobody's interested," McDonald said. "I'm hoping I get more than one applicant."

Although most federal agencies already had chief security officers in place before the September terrorist attacks, the government has put renewed emphasis on bolstering its roster of IT security experts in the past three months. But the going is rough.

Attracting IT security professionals to government jobs "is a very difficult, daunting task," McDonald said. Federal pay scales are a big problem. Salaries for IT security jobs in the federal government don't compare to private-sector salaries, which can be more than $500,000, according to executive search experts.

Other factors contribute to making federal agencies also-rans in the competition for IT security experts, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11. Practically anyone entrusted with maintaining the integrity of a sensitive government IT system must have top-level security clearance, which takes a minimum of three to four months to complete, according to federal managers and private-sector recruiters. These days, that process may take even longer as requests for security clearances increase.

Protecting a complex information system from break-ins and disruptions also requires advanced expertise, as well as a sophisticated sense of where the system's weaknesses might be and how "bad actors" might exploit them, said Karen Hogan, acting deputy chief information officer for the Commerce Department.

Because of the level of skills involved, "IT security is one of those areas where we haven't had a large cadre of people to choose from," Hogan said.

The Scholarship for Service program, an initiative set up under the Clinton administration, is designed to help alleviate that shortage. The program awards scholarships to students in the information security field in return for at least two years of service in the federal government. The National Science Foundation awarded $8.6 million to six schools last May, and the first students entered the program in September.

Tom Ridge, homeland security director, and Richard Clarke, special adviser to the president for cyberspace security, are already pulling students from the current scholarship pool to serve in their new White House offices, said Sujeet Shenoi, a professor at the University of Tulsa's Center for Information Security.

Besides training current civilian and defense federal employees, more than 15 students are enrolled in the university's Center for Information Security on NSF and Defense Department scholarship programs, and Clarke and Ridge have asked two students interning at the White House to stay on, Shenoi said.

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Who's to blame? If federal agencies are having difficulty hiring information security experts, they have only themselves to blame, several knowledgeable observers say.

Security measures are often regarded "as an unnecessary intrusion into the effective operation of some government units. Many agencies say, 'We're not the bad guys' targets. Therefore, let's not go overboard on this,' " said Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

McCrie isn't alone in his assessment. Early last month, the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee gave two-thirds of federal agencies surveyed a failing grade for efforts to secure information systems. Overall, the government received a grade of F for its effort to secure IT systems. Only the National Science Foundation received a grade higher than a C-plus.

"Unfortunately, in government many organizations are still very bureaucratic. So when you get a young, energetic individual [on staff], frequently they're not given the opportunities to do some of the energetic things they would want to do," said Sallie McDonald, assistant commissioner for information assurance and critical infrastructure protection at the General Services Administration.

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