The Shutdown’s Impact on Cybersecurity Talent

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The government cannot afford to lose these people.

Meet Jane Doe. Jane is 25 years old, grew up in Anywhere, USA and has been working as a cybersecurity analyst for the U.S. government since she graduated college three and a half years ago. She decided to accept a job at the Department of Homeland Security working for the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency because of the training they offer, her interest in cybersecurity, the desire to serve her country, and the ability to do meaningful work. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area where the current supply/demand ratio for cybersecurity workers is extremely low. Jane was recently promoted to a GS12 position and is currently making approximately $82,000 per year. She loves her work but is sometimes frustrated with the government bureaucracy.

The recent government shutdown affecting 800,000 federal employees impacted Jane directly, as she was considered mission critical. It also impacted several of her friends working in non-mission critical roles. None of them received paychecks for the past two pay periods, but Jane was ordered to work without pay while her friends were at home worrying about how to pay their bills. Regardless of their classifications, the shutdown-induced significant hardships on Jane and her peers. As a result, these early career government employees are reconsidering their decision to work for the federal government.

The recent shutdown directly impacted roughly 25 percent of the civilian government and put more than 800,000 people in a position of having to pay their bills without the benefit of a continuing paycheck. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers struggled to pay their bills and feed their families, and experienced major duress due to political infighting. The message they received was that they were either not valued, pawns in a political game—or worse, both.

Cybersecurity Workers Feel the Pain

While the impact on all government workers affected by the shutdown was significant and harmful regardless of their roles, the impact on public sector cybersecurity workers will be even more acute. These workers could have pursued directly comparable roles in the private sector that pay significantly more, allow them to be a part of companies with great cultures, provide the ability to leverage the latest technology, and offer comparable job security.

The government cannot afford to lose these people. According to CyberSeek.org, as of Jan. 26, the current D.C. metro workforce is comprised of 6,226 cybersecurity public sector workers and 3,709 positions remain unfilled. There are 40,349 similar private sector positions open in the same area.

Unfortunately, the government is at risk of losing them to the private sector. Jane and her friends belong to a generation of early-stage career millennials who want to have fun, make money, and travel. They are beginning to think about getting married and starting families, but they are not far enough along in their careers to worry about retirement or being locked into a government position for life. Additionally, they feel hindered by late-stage government workers who don’t understand the latest technologies and trends and, quite frankly, aren’t entirely motivated to care.  

Reconsidering Their Commitment to the Public Sector

This recent shutdown, the sequestration of 2013, the risk of another near-term shutdown, and the ongoing uncertainty will likely cause Jane and employees like her to reconsider their options. The feelings invoked by the loss of one’s paycheck can cause anyone to reevaluate their situation, especially when they have alternative options that are as good as those available to government cybersecurity professionals. The training offered by the federal government is top tier, as is the exposure to cutting-edge scenarios. This makes these professionals incredibly marketable, and when coupled with significant pay increases, the government is inducing a huge problem. Jane is likely worth $120,000 or more at her current level in the private sector.

If Jane were your daughter, friend, or significant other, what advice would you give her? What would you do if you were her?

One of the greatest challenges to come out of the most recent shutdown is likely going to be the unmeasured loss of an entire generation of the best cybersecurity workers the government employs. Not all will decide that their career path should change course. However, enough will undoubtedly change careers, making this a greater issue than the loss of $6 billion in direct costs that S&P Global Ratings or $11 billion that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 35-day shutdown cost. Imagine the impact of applying $6 billion to $11 billion in cybersecurity funding to this country’s long-term cyber health. Imagine the capability that it would provide to Jane and her peers. The long-term implication on America’s cyber workforce will be significant, but never directly measured.

It’s unfortunate because we need these workers protecting the American people. Hopefully, we will never realize that our Cyber Wall was more important than the physical one.

Eric Trexler is vice president of global governments and critical infrastructure at Forcepoint.