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Does Anybody Really Know How Many Cyber Professionals the Government Needs?

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By Jack Moore November 3, 2014

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Nearly everyone agrees there’s a shortage of cybersecurity professionals across government.

But quantifying the precise cyber talent gap remains an inexact science.

"We always hear from agencies that they need more cybersecurity people, but they have a very difficult time pointing to what those positions are,” Tim Polk, assistant director for cybersecurity in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told members of a science advisory board on Oct. 23.

It turns out, agencies today haven’t even managed to measure the total number of cybersecurity professionals they have on staff currently, let alone gauge the gap in positions they need to fill.

Unlike for federal interior designers, bartenders or cemetery caretakers, there’s no governmentwide federal job description for cybersecurity.

Some lawmakers worry the disarray over job descriptions is holding back efforts to develop the ranks of federal cyber defenders.

"One of the things that had concerned me was that it appeared as though we've neglected to professionalize the various levels of occupation within the cybersecurity framework,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., said in a recent interview with Nextgov.

Clarke is the sponsor of the Homeland Security Boots On the Ground Act, passed by the House this summer. The act would require the Department of Homeland Security to more concretely spell out its cyber workers’ roles.

Bungled Start to Building Cyber Jobs Database

Governmentwide, the Obama administration has been pressing agencies to determine which of their positions are cyber friendly and recoding them to match a broad set of cyber skills and specialties developed by National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, or NICE as it’s known.

Data culled from agencies will be collected into a single federal cyber jobs databank.

But it hasn’t been a seamless process.

Agencies were supposed to finishing identifying and reorganizing their cyber jobs, by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2014. But about a fourth of them were unable to do so, in part, because of software problems, Polk told members of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board.

And the information collected clearly has missing pieces. For example, the data turned over by agencies indicated only three mathematicians across the entire federal government had any cyber responsibilities.

“I'm pretty sure we have more than three mathematicians at NIST who do computer security work,” Polk said.

Even after the data is properly unscrambled, the scope and utility of cyber jobs databank will be somewhat limited.

“We need to be measuring the workforce we want,” Polk said. “We will have a database that will tell you about the people that we have hired that are doing cybersecurity work. What I don't know is which positions we are unable to fill."

Framework Gives Standard Definition to Cyber Jobs

There’s no shortage of problems facing cybersecurity workforce efforts in government: salaries that aren’t keeping pace with deeper-pocketed industry, a vicious cycle of talent poaching between the private sector and government and agencies themselves and a hidebound, compliance-driven view of cybersecurity that hinders many would-be hackers from joining federal service.

Government auditors have long maintained carving out a specific job description for cybersecurity with a corresponding pay scale would better help agencies get a handle on their nascent cyber workforces.

Still, the Office of Personnel Management, although it supports better organization of cyber roles in general, has demurred on creating an entirely new classification standard.

Such a description could become quickly outdated anyway, experts say. After all, a key qualification for federal bartenders -- the standards were last updated in 1974, though they remain operational -- is the ability to make a mean Singapore Sling cocktail.

So, the administration has taken a middle ground: re-indexing current cyber jobs (in whatever OPM categories they fall under) according to the broad outlines of the NICE cyber workforce framework.

"Nobody has the same definition of cybersecurity, and that's what the framework is trying to harmonize, so that everybody's talking from the same set of vocabulary,” Karen Evans, former federal chief information officer during the Bush administration, said in an interview with Nextgov.

Evans is now the head of U.S. Cyber Challenge, which helps connect talented hackers with the government and industry using ongoing series of competitions and challenges in addition to more static measures such as certifications and resumes.

Experts: Focus on Mission-Critical Cyber Jobs

Still, experts hope quantifying the cyber workforce doesn’t devolve into purely a paper-pushing exercise.

Alan Paller, the founder and director of research at the SANS Institute, helped lead a 2012 task force on cyber skills at DHS, aimed at identifying ways the department could boost its cyber workforce. The key takeaway of a report from the task force was to focus not on every possible job with a cyber component but on “mission-critical cybersecurity roles and tasks.”

"There are hundreds of other jobs you can call cybersecurity jobs, but whether you do them or not isn't what stops these attacks,” Paller told Nextgov. “What actually protects the information the government's trying to protect is these mission-critical jobs."

What are those most critical of jobs? Highly technical positions staffed by true experts who can identify infections and contain or eliminate breaches once they’ve happened, Paller said.

Those types of positions are still largely unfamiliar to most agencies.

“The majority of our cybersecurity workforce has been focused on compliance, for forever,” said Dan Waddell, director of government affairs at (ISC)2, a cybersecurity training nonprofit.

"Because of that, a lot of the technical what we call cyber warriors types were converted into compliance, check-the-box analysts,” he said.

Despite the bungled start to building the cyber jobs data bank, official stress the importance of starting somewhere. And in the future, officials hope the cyber jobs repository they’re now building can be used by agencies to identify gaps in their workforces and design remedies to plug them.

“We have to prioritize,” Cheri Caddy, the National Security Council’s director for Cyber Policy Integration, said at the board meeting. “We can't even begin to determine how we focus our limited dollars. Do we need more forensics specialists? Do I need more -- scares me to say it -- cyber lawyers? Yes, I do need more cyber lawyers ... I need as many as I can get.”

(Image via Pressmaster/Shutterstock.com)

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