Getting and Growing the Cyber Workforce You Need for 2021—and Beyond

Laurence Dutton/iStock

It’s no secret that the competition for cyber talent is stiff. With a 0% unemployment rate and nearly 400K open positions across the U.S., federal agencies must reinvent their cyber employee experience. 

With the increased reliance on digital infrastructure for everything from telehealth to delivery services and unprecedented numbers of remote workers, COVID-19 has expanded the attack surfaces for cybercriminals. Concurrently, threat actors have been intensifying their efforts in both scope and sophistication, with next-generation artificial intelligence, 5G and ransomware threats looming on the horizon for 2021. 

Meanwhile, cyber talent remains scarce. According to the recent (ISC)² 2020 Cybersecurity Workforce Study, the cybersecurity workforce “needs to grow by approximately 41 percent in the U.S.”

As cyber threats continue to increase, it’s more important than ever for cyber leaders to employ effective hiring, training and empowerment strategies to optimize the immediate cost savings and maximize workforce productivity. 

How can your organization find, retain and grow the workforce you need for today’s cybersecurity challenges and those of the post-COVID-19 world? Based on our cybersecurity and change management work for clients including chief information security officers (CISOs) and chief human capital officers (CHCOs)—and supporting our own more than 27,000 employees, here are some suggestions.

Rethink Job Postings and Hiring Processes

In our experience, the “typical” cyber expert does not exist, and the best comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Think career-switchers and military veterans of all specialties. What they have in common: They’re systems-oriented, able to see patterns and links where others may not, and dynamic in spirit, attitude and mind.

COVID-19-driven remote work opens new possibilities for bringing these workers onto your team. You no longer need potential employees based near your offices and teams of CISOs and CHCOs can coordinate to offer new official duty stations for your cyber positions. They can live and work anywhere there’s a secure internet connection. The remote work environment is particularly conducive to the dynamic, flexible, informal ways cyber teams collaborate.

Even with an expanded candidate pool, it’s imperative to get hiring decisions right. This requires a proactive candidate sourcing and recruiting process that helps attract new talent and goes beyond the passive use of USAJobs. The Department of Labor estimates the average cost of a bad hiring decision is at least 30% of the individual's first year expected earnings. Here are a few steps to avoid such costly mistakes: 

  • Update position criteria and descriptions: Job announcements and position descriptions are often the first line of offense for gaining qualified talent. Make sure your language and specified “must-haves” aren’t screening promising candidates out of the process. Consider ways to widen your pool, such as looking at aptitude tools that comply with the DEO Handbook and EEO Uniform Guidelines to find the otherwise hidden candidates. The Workforce Framework for Cybersecurity (NICE Framework) can help guide you to include the right skills across every GS-level.
  • Screen for actual capabilities: Skills assessments allow organizations to look beyond candidate resumes, interviews and potential biases to measure actual real-world skills. When implemented appropriately and combined with other selection methods, these sample tests can be highly predictive of job performance. It’s important, however, to ensure that organizations fully understand how to properly administer these assessments, including establishing metrics and scores, monitoring progress, and safeguarding these tools against unintentional adverse impacts, like bias.
  • Ensure your interviewers are “remote ready”: The interview process should allow candidates to get to know the organization, the position and the team. To ensure proper “candidate care,” train your hiring managers on virtual interviewing techniques.
  • Make the hire stick. In a hypercompetitive environment with high turnover, using all the tools in the federal hiring chest box is critical. Consider strategic use of Special Needs Authority and the 3Rs (Recruitment, Relocation, Retention) for cyber to avoid restrictive justification and/or delays in making your new hire a productive member of your team.

Keep Building Capabilities After the Hire 

Bringing new cyber talent onboard is step one. Up next: strengthening the workforce traits at the core of cyber risk management, such as agility, flexibility, and problem-solving. This mission begins on the first day, is ongoing, and involves the entire team. Our recommended tactics include:  

  • Customize the new employee experience: Make sure processes support cyber talent's unique needs, especially in a virtual setting. Incorporate mentorship relationships from Day 1. We have found that access to mentorship relationships, peer/cohort mentors and experienced mentors, is a foundational aspect cybersecurity professionals career success.
  • Track skill development: How are new hires progressing with the skills they have today—and the ones they’ll need for changing threat environments and organizational requirements? Flexible skills assessment tools can help you keep track of how cyber professionals are doing and adapt accordingly. Integrate these assessments into performance evaluation processes, individual development plans, workforce training strategies, and learning management systems. 
  • Train and assess the entire team: In cybersecurity, team performance is often just as important—if not more so—than individual skill. You can also use assessments to measure team performance, including gaps, and transfer knowledge across your cyber function teams and team members. 

Cultivate a Flexible, Inclusive Culture 

Once you bring in people with cyber-ready skills and start investing in their growth, you must keep them. 

Central to retention is understanding what these professionals want in a workplace. In our experience, they seek flexibility—in where they work, when, even what they wear on the job. They seek support for continuous learning—from on-the-job to tuition assistance for certifications and degrees. They seek equal opportunities in career advancement—an area of particular importance as teams work remotely across high-demand cities, small towns with radically lower costs of living, and everywhere in between.

Most of all, they want to feel included and valued. One way to accomplish this is through training cyber leaders about inclusion and backing up this training with the right mindset and management practices. Another way is to eliminate layers and create a "flat" hierarchy where they can more freely share their ideas and energy—and benefit the agency by recognizing cyber is a “team sport.”

As questions around COVID-19 and the pandemic's long-term impacts on our work environments continue to remain unanswered, remote work may become a norm for many organizations. Cyber leaders who are hesitant to change their current practices when it comes to recruiting and retaining cyber talent—particularly, in a virtual space—will risk facing greater transactional costs and long-term battles with maintaining their workforce. Together, these hiring, training and empowerment strategies can go a long way toward building and strengthening the skilled workforce you need to combat cybersecurity challenges during and after the pandemic.   

Erin Weiss Kaya a Booz Allen Hamilton senior associate and one of the firm’s leading cybersecurity human capital experts.