Federal law enforcement agencies are hurting for IT personnel just as much as other agencies, but their more exciting missions can actually cause the tech and cyber vacancies to be overshadowed by more popular officer positions, according to agency officials who spoke at a May 15 AFCEA forum.

“We have more people than we can process who want to be a maritime law enforcement specialist,” Michael Dickey, commander of the C4IT Service Center at the U.S. Coast Guard. “What we’re finding, though, with our recruiting for our IT and cyber workforce, is that we’re struggling to offer them an equivalent opportunity that is exciting.”

Since federal jobs are often unable to compete in compensation with the private sector, particularly in the IT and cyber space, excitement for the mission is one of the selling points that many agencies have to rely on to attract talent.

“We are dealing with a pretty steady loss of some of our fantastic talent to private industry or to other government agencies,” said Dickey, explaining that his active-duty personnel generally leave because of management problems, but the same is not true with civilians.

“With our civilian workforce, which in the IT world is key to providing some of that institutional knowledge and stability, they’re leaving because they can make a lot more money outside of the Coast Guard. And that’s an area where we can’t compete."

However, according to Patrina King, management and program analyst at the FBI, law enforcement agencies can offer their IT personnel the ability to train on new or consequential systems in a way that motivates them to stay in the federal workforce.

“If you train people on things that they’re interested in, if you train them on what you need them to be trained in, they’re going to stay. Because they’re going to know that ‘I can stay here and get educated on different systems and different technologies, and I can grow as an individual, as well as be effective in the mission,’” said King.

New isn’t always the government’s forte, however, particularly in the IT space. Acquisitions of new IT systems can take months, if not years, and programs tend to have longer timetables because of the evaluation and oversight requirements that come with a government agency.

“The young folks want to make things happen and they want to do it now,” said Dickey.

That lag time has also infiltrated the hiring process, where acceptance for a federal position can still require months of onboarding and waiting for security clearances to go through an already backed-up system.

Jeremy Wiltz, assistant director of the FBI Information Technology Enterprise Services Division, had a new employee tell him, “’If this weren’t the FBI, I would’ve left a long time ago.’ And we were onboarding.”

But just as technology has placed a greater need for IT-skilled workers in law enforcement agencies, it can also provide a solution to consistently vacant positions in the federal workforce through processes like automation.

According to Ed Burrows, robotics process automation program manager at the General Services Administration, employees are often thrilled when automating part of their job means that they have more time to tackle the projects they were actually hired to do.

Wiltz suggested targeting automation projects to first try and eliminate the need for positions that are so hard to fill anyway.