Do federal hiring processes discourage qualified applicants?

Shortage of qualified IT security professionals not helped by government's cumbersome policies

Information technology security has been identified as a critical area in which thousands of employees will have to be hired just to replace aging federal workers who are eligible for retirement in the next few years. Officials warn of a serious shortage of professionals qualified to fill these jobs, but one frustrated applicant says getting a government job can be as tough as the biblical challenge of getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

“I have applied to nine different positions in three agencies (Defense Information Security Agency, IRS and Veterans Affairs) since March 2009,” he said. He has had one interview, and it is now going on six weeks with no word back from the agency. The status of the other eight job listings has not changed in five months. “I inquired on one of them last month [July] and was told that ‘the external resumes haven't been reviewed yet.'”

It is not that he isn’t qualified. He is a certified IT security professional working for a major defense contractor with 20 years experience and security clearances from the Defense and Homeland Security departments. “I’m a gold-plated candidate,” he said.

The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for an interview on hiring practices. But the applicant, who prefers to remain anonymous in order to protect his current job, blames government bureaucracy. “The process is so weighted down with paperwork and process, there is no way it could get done quickly.”

A study released last week by the Partnership for Public Service estimates that nearly half of the federal IT workforce of 56,463 will reach retirement age over the next three years, and a survey of agencies shows that they intend to hire more than 11,500 workers from fiscal 2010 to 2012.

The same organization released a report in July found in which it concluded that “our federal government will be unable to combat [cyber] threats without a more coordinated, sustained effort to increase cybersecurity expertise in the federal workforce.” It quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that the Pentagon is “desperately short of people who have capabilities (defensive and offensive cybersecurity war skills) in all the services and we have to address it.” Three quarters of CIOs, CISOs, IT hiring managers and human-resources professionals surveyed for the report said attracting skilled cybersecurity talent would be a high or top priority through the next two fiscal years.

Citing what some experts are calling a “radical shortage” of skilled cybersecurity professionals, a government and industry coalition in July announced the U.S. Cyber Challenge, a collection of long-term programs to identify skilled students at the high school level and earlier, and to foster their educational and professional development to help fill the human resources pipeline for the cybersecurity professionals needed in coming years.

But if federal hiring practices are not changed, that pipeline will find itself backed up as applicants begin to emerge. The Partnership for Public Service study identified a handful of hiring roadblocks, including:

  • Fragmented governance and uncoordinated leadership that hinders the ability to meet federal cybersecurity workforce needs.
  • Complicated processes and rules that hamper recruiting and retention efforts.
  • Disconnects between front-line hiring managers and government HR specialists.

That has been the experience of the frustrated applicant. “Each agency has its own rules,” he said. One agency official told him that the hiring process now takes from four to nine months.

This applicant can afford to wait. He likes his present job and is looking for a government berth primarily to find work closer to his home and family. But that lead time for employment will eliminate many qualified workers, he said.

“No qualified individual is going to wait five to eight months to find out if they got the job,” he said. And there are limits to his own patience. “I want to be challenged and give something back to the feds, but ...”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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