Security Clearance Delays Are Hurting the Pentagon's Tech Workforce

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The Defense Department is also looking to build out its recruitment staff, officials told Congress.

The government’s lengthy security clearance process is making it harder for the Defense Department to hire top tech and cyber talent, Pentagon officials told Congress on Tuesday.

They also said the department has yet to take full advantage of the Cyber Excepted Service program, a special authority meant to make it easier to bring IT specialists into the workforce.

As the Pentagon ramps up investment in artificial intelligence, cloud services and other emerging tech, its appetite for digital expertise is growing. But scant resources and surplus bureaucracy are hampering recruitment efforts, officials said, and the talent gap isn’t spread evenly across the enterprise.

Chief among the obstacles facing the department is the government’s lengthy hiring process, according to Brig. Gen. Dennis Crall, the Pentagon’s deputy principal cyber adviser.

“The onboarding process can be very frustrating,” Crall told the House Armed Services Emerging Threats subpanel. “If we can’t bring [IT specialists] on quickly because they’re held up in the security clearance process, it’s [possible] that they lose some interest and we don’t garner the result we’re looking for.”

The clearance process, which can take nearly a year to complete in some cases, has long plagued the government defense and intelligence communities. The Pentagon is expected to take over all federal background checks later this year.

But beyond security clearances, the Pentagon also faces organizational barriers to building a robust tech workforce, according to Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy. While components like U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Information Systems Agency are “well on their way” to amassing the talent they need, the individual branches haven’t had as much success, he said.

“The department’s cyber workforce is critical to our mission success,” Deasy said, but “the [personnel and readiness] organizations in the respective [military] services need to train up at a faster rate the people they need to bring onboard.”

Crall attributed the delays to a lack of staff responsible for implementing the Cyber Excepted Service program. Currently, the department only has five people dedicated to hiring the thousands of IT specialists needed across the enterprise, and it needs to double the size of the team to meet existing demands, he said. Crall added that he recently submitted a request for more manpower to Deasy’s office.

He also said the department could better utilize its relationship with academia to build a pipeline for tech talent.

While the Pentagon works to streamline the hiring process and expand its tech workforce, the talent gap at civilian agencies is growing at an even faster rate. At some agencies, more than half the tech workforce is within 10 years of retirement, and officials are struggling to recruit the next generation of feds to replace them.