Careers in government: Challenges in recruiting

I teach a discipline almost completely on topics of interest only to government entities. By far and in most cases the only people interested in investing towards professional incident response requiring forensics level skills is the government. Whether a local police officer who might do a few cases a year involving computers, or a federal computer investigation group my students usually work for government. On the technical side of the incident response several corporations invest in forensic levels of incident response. In general they are doing so because they interact with the court system in e-discovery or are responding to some regulatory requirement.

I’ve been watching since last year when I came back to Purdue how the government recruiters treat my students. I told my student many times that they should consider working for the federal government, but I don’t find myself saying that as much recently. Between my couple dozen students and questions I get from students that know I have worked in the federal government I’m not finding it a viable option. Just as a caveat up front, I only worked in the federal government for 17 months this last time. I have worked for a federal contract agency (9 months), two county governments (7 years), state government as .edu (10 years), and previous military time of 3 years. I spent a decade working for industry. So my experience and seniority is not as much as some and my understanding is based on that particular set of experiences.

One of my grad students was way more than peeved over current issues in government

“U.S. Government has come up with a hell of a recruiting plan.  It goes like this: come work for us for a lower salary than you would make in an industry job.  Right away we will reward you with a 20% pay cut and then! because that is not enough we will follow that with random but predictable periods when we won’t pay you at all.  But wait! There’s more! We will also include constant discussion of reduction in force plans.  All this and you get all the benefit of working in a bureaucracy so encumbered by red tape and regulations that you won’t actually be able to accomplish anything.”

A second caveat. I liked working in the federal government. If my former boss hadn’t basically told the guys working cyber conflict issues our services weren’t needed anymore I likely would have stayed many years. To be sure I am not a “good” government employee. I don’t dress nice enough, I am not a retired colonel from a military unit (with 2 years of experience 15 times), and I have way to  much education in comparison to many of what would be my peers. I also have a tendency to tell somebody to FOAD if they screw with me. I’m more enlisted Marine than gentlemanly officer, and I wasn’t a very good Marine either. So, when I talk about issues take it with a grain of salt or a shot of tequila. Your choice.

I am concerned about the federal propensity to over state the issues facing the nation as far as how many people we need in the various fields associated with information assurance and security. The land of hyperbole is here and we are it. It is said we need over 40K current practitioners of cyber security. The primary place for hiring is USAjobs so I decided to go look and see what kind of jobs are available. The search terms were simple. Only US Citizens (versus federal employees) , no restrictions on pay, work type, posting date, or agency. The location was also left blank. These would then be ALL of the jobs in the federal government for the two search terms “cyber” and “infosec”. The term security is useless since security guards and personal security are among the 4000 returned results.

We get the following for cyber


We get the following for infosec


Of the total results between the two of them if you merge “cyber” and “infosec” you get 14 matches.


What does this tell us? Well first it says there are only a hundred open position types in federal government right now. Many of the open positions will be filled by multiple people, but there are not even a thousand likely open job positions and with reduction in force and furlough it is unlikely that the open positions will be filled. A common practice is to use open positions for cost savings and when you are looking at furloughs as a possibility holding the line item of a position open is a good idea. It is a really good idea when a reduction in force is possible. If somebody was to be hired and the GS rack and stack game of reduction in force is played the new employees are likely to be cut first. Students who apply for jobs and turned down don’t get to know all the politics. They just never go back and look again when they really do want to hire somebody.

This isn’t a good picture. What is worse is credibility of the government agencies. Recently several of my students went to a (get ready for naming and shaming) FBI recruiting event here on our campus. They sat through a presentation of how great it is to work for the FBI and you want to work for us kind of event. The students started to get really excited. Mission accomplished go team FBI. Then they were told the FBI was in the middle of a two year hiring freeze and though they could apply it would likely do no good. This is the battleship FBI sinking into the sea of college students despair. Most of those students left thinking the FBI was a joke and are turning their attentions to other places. The best of the best and the brightest and smartest will now ignore the FBI.

The other fatal mistake I’ve seen recently is for two students in the same program, with similar experiences, and fairly consistent skills get an offer for the same job category at the same agency. Only there are numerous GS steps between the GS 8 position and the GS 12 position the students are offered independently. I might have been a GS15 in government but even I can’t justify that kind of result. One accepted and the other declined. Nobody is the winner and now I hesitate to let that agency near my students. I have to caution them and tell them about what is good and what is bad in the job market. Oh, and I get to decide who I cede time to during my class time. I also get to decide who I forward emails from or introduce to my top students. The credibility of a professor introduction is two way. I don’t want to burn credibility with my students anymore than I do with agencies.

Let’s look at my experience when I went from my DHS fellowship towards a year of mandatory government service. The history lesson says I walk the talk. I started with the perception that I would be able to do my service at my job at Purdue. That was not to be and I ended up scrambling for a position that met the service requirements for my fellowship. Since my area of expertise and at the time nearly 25 years of experience were fairly well documented I was prepared to take a GS 13/14 position.

When the NSA offered me a position it was a GS12/0 and $15K a year less than I made as a low paid professor. I couldn’t take that job for sure. To make matters worse it was a contingent job offer, with a disclaimer saying it was non-negotiable, and I would be held accountable for any costs incurred by the NSA should I accept the offer and decline later. Screw that. I sat on it for five days and replied that there was no way I could take that job. The lesson to take from this is that the power differential is completely tilted toward the government hiring authority. The only power the candidate has is in the option to accept of decline. What the government is facing now is a population of young people who aren’t even applying. Not that there are that many jobs available.

I was interviewing for a series of federal jobs thinking I would take a leave of absence from Purdue and work my year or maybe two in federal service. This would be a win for everybody. Actually the federal agencies called that a big LOSER. I had three options left after NSA flat lined me. I ended up taking the Title 10 position at NDU classified as a GS15 level employee. This was a not to exceed 3 year position so I planned on keeping my options open. I had to be the cheapest GS15 in Washington DC at literally a GS15/0. There were two flies in the ointment. They wanted me in the middle of the semester while I was teaching at Purdue and it was a non-negotiable start date.

I had entered a PhD program because my bosses at Purdue had said I needed to the PhD to be a viable tenure candidate. I had gotten tenure and continued on to their amazement. I had needed some kind of funding and gotten a generous NSA/DHS fellowship. I had very little to no support from Purdue in the process of getting a PhD. My class teaching schedules weren’t adjusted, I was given very little monetary assistance (just partial remission) and finally on at least one occasion I have given 20 hours of teaching in one semester. With a four hour commute round trip on two to three days of a week to PhD classes, 20 hours of teaching on campus, no teaching assistant to help with grading, all of my courses I taught were laboratory based courses, and full time PhD work, all I can say is my life was full and plentiful. I got my PhD. I had to quit my tenured professor position.

When offered the position I accepted the job at NDU. Financially I had been put into a position where I would have to pay back the fellowship money if I didn’t accept. Personally I was in a position where I wanted to serve my country. I worked out a plan to have another professor teach out my courses and left to take the NDU job. I wanted a leave of absence but the bosses at Purdue Calumet weren’t up for that. I still have a hard time talking around the issues of giving up tenure, leaving somewhere I had great investment, and moving away from an area I really liked living. I didn’t look back. My work at NDU gave me a chance to pay back my service commitment, work with awesome people, learn a lot about government, work with senior executives and leadership, and learn learn learn.

I tell you the story about the level of commitment I entered government service. I was selective but I was committed. I believed from day one in government service. Between insults about having an earring, complaints about my thread worn suit coat, and my Sperry Topsider leather shoes I wasn’t so worried about the trivialities of government service. It took 17 months of being told it is the end, doom, gloom, and oh my freaking goodness isn’t that a steam roller coming for your neck, before I decided to leave. The NDU(P) in a town hall flat out told me directly to find other opportunities and get out of NDU soonest. Once I had decided to leave and was actively looking I found myself presented an opportunity. NSA/CyberCom asked if I would join them and if I was interested. I interviewed informally and was offered a position (not the provisional since I had already been vetted).

Knowing the situation for don’t take no for an answer I wouldn’t negotiate. I was a GS15 equivalent I wasn’t going to take a demotion. They said GS13, I said GS15, and they countered with GS14. They thought we were negotiating. I had two other job offers and a provisional discussion of employment already in my pocket. To this day I think they had to be joking that the only reason I couldn’t get a GS15 was because it came with a parking space. I came back to the main campus at Purdue and tenure. I really wanted to work with the great people at Fort Meade. Was this a mistake for me walking away? Did I burn bridges and lose friends and colleagues over this choice? I’m not sure but soon after that I didn’t get the “whatcha working on sam?” emails anymore. The answer though not explicit is likely evident. I tried very hard to be brutally honest with myself and my career aspirations. I entered with a personal 3 year commitment goal to the government. On my clock I still owe 19 months to a career.

Why the history lesson? Government is going down a dangerous path. They are burning the millennial generation before they even show up for employment. Government has already created a credibility gap and that gap is getting wider. The trades often associated with government of life style, security, and commitment for the lower wages and less dynamic environment is not there anymore. You get all of the negatives and reductions in force and furloughs added on that career path. I’ve seen bad stuff but from the external view this is looking even worse.

My entire academic discipline revolves around the government and the associated legal and investigative practices of government. Cyber forensics touches every agency and department of the federal and state governments. My speciality and area of research is a cyber conflict and that is almost always the provenance of the nation state. As a professor, leader, and mentor I need to balance my own enthusiasm for service for the realities of economics and professional growth. I’ve signed to be in the Army, I’ve signed to be in the Marines, I’ve joined the federal government as a civilian employee and I’ve signed to be a law enforcement officer in a county. I believe in service but I worry that we over state the needs, treat people poorly, and create a hostile work environment. I still struggle to express the thoughts that go along with that, but if we continue down this path government won’t be able to hire people at any wage.



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