To build and retain the next generation of intelligence professionals, the IC should pull back the curtain to help prospective talent see themselves in these roles.
Many parts of the intelligence community operate within a veil of secrecy—and for good reason. But to attract and retain the diverse and highly technical talent the IC needs in order to counter the new and increasingly complex threats posed by our adversaries, it’s time to think more creatively.
The impenetrable quality that the IC created has made it difficult for outsiders, and especially potential employees, to gain a meaningful understanding of the impactful and fulfilling work the IC leads. While it’s critical to shroud certain activity in secrecy, in today’s national security environment there is increasing importance around “open source intelligence”—unclassified information drawn from social media, online material and commercial data sources. Therefore, coveting everything alike has its drawbacks. With a lack of reliable information, the public tends to base its understanding of the IC on what is depicted in popular culture, which too often portrays a narrow ideal.
To build and retain the next generation of intelligence professionals and combat the diverse threats facing our nation today, and in the future, the IC should take steps to significantly ramp up its efforts to become more transparent about the career paths (including upward mobility), culture and lifestyle it can offer to prospective and current talent—and there are ways to do this without compromising security. We must look at the art of what’s possible and not be confined to legacy approaches. Here’s how.
Foster transparency without sacrificing security
The most effective way for the IC to meet today’s unique and diverse threats is with an equally diverse workforce. Although there have been some gains in the representation of women and minorities (39% and 27%, respectively), agencies continue to struggle with retention. Furthermore, data shows the percentage of minorities at the senior executive level across the IC stands significantly lower at just 15.4%.
To attract and retain these candidates, it’s critical to make cultural changes and pull back the curtain to help prospective talent see themselves in these roles. By adjusting legacy processes and positioning intelligence leaders as partners to the general public, national security work can be viewed as more relatable and appealing as a career path.
The truth is that the IC needs everyone—operations leaders, data scientists, deep technologists, business intelligence and cybersecurity experts. A combination of science, engineering, analytic and technical backgrounds are essential on the front lines of intelligence for strategic, operational and tactical success.
Strategies to recruit and retain top talent
There are a few key strategies that the IC can implement and promote to attract talent.
First, highlight the people and work in areas that are not highly classified. For example, this past October, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Dr. Stacey Dixon served as the inaugural speaker for the “Women in STEM” series at Harris-Stowe State University, a historically black public university. She also fielded questions from students about STEM and her personal experience in the IC. “Don’t let the fact that you don’t see a lot of people in the field, [like you] stop you from going into it if that’s what you love,” said Dixon. This visibility will go a long way in helping prospective employees from all backgrounds see a role for themselves in the IC.
Additionally, promote opportunities for internal mobility. Employees at every level want the ability to move into different positions within the community and leverage their skill set to serve various clients. As part of this, the community should focus resources on upskilling and retooling the workforce to enable employees to expand their expertise in new areas, and in more geographically dispersed regions.
Finally, embrace a distributed workforce through innovative technological solutions, where applicable and appropriate. The success of remote teams during the height of the pandemic has demonstrated that not all personnel need to report to a sensitive compartmented information facility every day to deliver mission-critical support. A hybrid cleared workforce—a framework that could allow the IC to use digital experts, skilled but not yet cleared, to accelerate classified missions—offers key benefits including access to an expanded pool of specialized, diverse and scarce technical talent, as well as improved workforce resiliency.
Reimagining national security through innovation
The ultimate goal of these efforts is to create a more integrated, agile, resilient and innovative community. Fortunately, we are starting to see steps toward this evolution. Moonshot Labs, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s first-ever unclassified, collaborative innovation space, is an example of forward-thinking and fusion that other agencies should try to emulate. Highlighting the people and outcomes of the lab, once available, will be key to recruitment efforts.
There will always be roadblocks that arise when challenging the status quo. However, as our world accelerates rapidly and the IC is engaged in a myriad of complex national security issues, we must continue to leverage the power of innovation and a diverse workforce to deliver the outcomes that enable the IC to move their mission forward.
Maisha Glover is a senior vice president in Booz Allen Hamilton’s national security business.