What the shutdown says to the tech workforce

The shutdown is but one of several factors sending a discouraging message to the federal workforce, and to talented students and professionals who could be potential new hires.

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.

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