Critical Update: The Defender’s Dilemma 

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Soon the Homeland Security Department will be able to compete for cyber talent without the shackles of the federal government’s rigid paytable.

The demand for cybersecurity experts is skyrocketing around the globe, and that doesn’t bode well for the federal government.

Salary caps, lengthy onboarding and rigid career ladders have historically made it hard for agencies to recruit top cyber talent, and with worldwide digital threats on the rise, the competition is only going to get stiffer. But officials at the Homeland Security Department think they can bring more of that limited cyber talent into government by flipping the hiring process on its head.

The Cyber Talent Management System, set to debut in early 2020, will do away with entire General Schedule system and give Homeland Security officials more flexibility in the jobs, salaries and benefits it can offer to cybersecurity personnel. The department plans to hire some 150 employees using the new system next year, and if all goes well, officials may expand it to include positions beyond cybersecurity, according to Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey.

“The old way of doing things isn't going to work,” Bailey says on the latest episode of Critical Update. “What we're going to do is literally start from scratch and build a personnel system that's really designed for not only today but will carry us through the 21st century.”

The new strategy was in the works for a long time. Congress gave department officials the authorities to create the system back in 2014, and in the interim years, recruiting cybersecurity personnel was still a heavy lift, says Suzanne Spaulding, the former undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate who now serves as a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Finding talented people was a challenge, but the bigger frustration is even when we were able to ... convince them to take the lower salary and come into government, it took so long to bring them on board,” she said.

While the Cyber Talent Management System could help the agency overcome many of those obstacles, there’s still more work to be done. The federal cyber workforce is still overwhelmingly white and male, and building a more diverse pool of specialists might require a similar overhaul of the agency’s management and HR practices, Spaulding said.

Hear more about how Homeland Security is approaching its cyber workforce in the full episode below. Or, download and subscribe to Critical Update in the Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

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