The secret source for cyber hires
Government agencies are often at a disadvantage when trying to hire cyber talent because they simply can't match the salaries private companies can offer. And while top federal agencies can stress their national-security angle and cutting-edge missions, the average state or local job is usually not nearly as sexy.
When it comes to recruiting recent graduates, however, governments at all levels have a little-known tool at their disposal: the federal government's CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program gives participating four-year colleges and universities scholarship grants to attract both undergraduate and graduate students to the cybersecurity field. Scholarship recipients then commit to a year of government employment for each year of the scholarship -- effectively giving interested agencies an exclusive talent pool from which to recruit.
Minnesota Chief Information Security Officer Christopher Buse, who spoke about the program on April 25 at the National Association of State CIOs conference in Arlington, Va., said that currently, "almost all those individuals go to federal agencies to work to fulfill their grant requirements." But employment at the state, local and tribal government level counts too, so the scholarships and their public-service requirements serve as a free workforce benefit for agencies that choose to take part.
It's a great deal for students as well: The average scholarship recipient gets an average of $50,000 per year, Buse said -- a figure that includes a stipend as well as covering tuition, room and board.
Some students begin that work while still in school. Buse pointed to one of his hires as an example: The student is a full-time employee, working nights and weekends for the state with a salary of more than $60,000. As a SFS student, meanwhile, the individual is getting a free education, housing and a $25,000-per-year stipend. "That's a hundred-thousand-dollar college student," Buse said.
Not surprisingly, such a generous program attracts significant interest among students -- Buse said participating schools generally get 15 applicants for every scholarship granted. That highly competitive process helps the hiring agencies, he noted, as only the best students make it into the program. "The people we have coming out are phenomenally talented," he said.
Government participation is not nearly so robust. The program holds an in-person career fair each January, Buse said. Last year, Minnesota and Iowa were the only states to recruit there -- and Buse had personally persuaded his Iowa peer to go.
Government agencies must apply to participate in the program, and a handful of other states are registered to recruit Scholarship for Service students. But as Connecticut CIO Mark Raymond said at the event, "you get out of it what you put in."
"It’s kind of sad that we don’t have more participation in the program," Buse said. "It’s a good thing from my perspective, though-- I had 200 resumes from top students that all had master’s degrees, multiple programming languages. … You’re picking from the cream of the crop."
There are nearly 70 accredited schools that take part in the SFS program, which means there are pipelines of graduates seeking government work scattered across the country. Four schools near Minneapolis/St. Paul take part, Buse said, and he's found that many graduates are interested in staying close to home.
"It’s like shooting fish in a bucket," he said. Since so few non-federal agencies hire from the program, "there’s just not a lot of competition. ... Not everyone wants to go work inside the Beltway."
Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN, as well as General Manager of Public Sector 360.
Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.
Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.
Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.