The federal government, much like many other sectors, has struggled for years to attract and retain the number of cybersecurity professionals needed to protect its IT systems. The Harvard Business Review estimates that there are over 1.5 million vacant cyber positions in the world.

The Partnership for Public Service announced Sept. 2 that its response to the cyber talent deficit in the federal government has placed its first class of cyber-trained experts in federal service.

The Cybersecurity Talent Initiative — a partnership between federal agencies, academic institutions and private companies — has placed 10 recent cyber graduates, its inaugural class, in positions across government for a two year stint, after which those employees can apply for positions at the private company and become eligible for student debt reimbursement.

“From the Partnership’s perspective, these large, complicated policy problems need to have coordination from multiple sectors of government. So having a candidate that works both in the federal government and in the private sector is really attractive,” Michelle Amante, vice president of Federal Workforce Programs at the Partnership, told Federal Times.

“From an applicant’s perspective, I think the biggest advantage is that after they have their two-year experience in the federal government and if they are selected to go work in a private sector company, they are eligible for $75,000 of student debt reimbursement. So given the student debt crisis in out country right now, this is a huge advantage for someone coming right out of school.”

The program received 437 applications for the first cohort, which were narrowed down to 105 finalists through initial resume vetting and subject-matter-expert interviews. The participating federal agencies then selected 10 applicants to offer positions to.

“I received my Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity and a minor in homeland security, and I really wanted to explore cybersecurity and infrastructure security,” Michelle Massarik, a graduate from the State University of New York at Albany and inaugural class member, said in a news release.

“As a new college grad, I was unsure of what cybersecurity areas I wanted to pursue, but this initiative assisted me with career and professional development to make the transition from university as smooth as possible. Service in the federal government also gives me a chance to apply my skills in a way that will make a difference to the lives of all Americans. I am really excited to bring my knowledge and experience into the working world.”

According to Amante, though the program only has participants working in their federal positions for two years, applicants are expected to have previous work or internship experience that enables them to hit the ground running.

“A lot of these folks are going to be working on projects immediately and will be benefitting the agency from day one. They’re not coming into these roles without having any work experience,” said Amante.

“The hope is that some of those participants eventually go back into government. But even if they don’t, that experience provided exposure to them and will give them insight into how the federal government works.”

The program is also intended to promote diversity in federal ranks and cybersecurity as a whole. The national average of African American workers in the cyber industry is around 15 percent, but 60 percent of the first cohort’s members are African American. The cohort also has a higher proportion of women — 30 percent — than the industry standard at 19 percent.

According to Amante, the program is open to applicants from anywhere in the country, made all the more easy to accomplish because so many positions have become virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. That pandemic has also increased the need for cyber workers.

“The pandemic is showing us what happens when an underprepared federal government faces a disaster. Our reliance on remote work and learning through technology underscores the critical need to prepare for and safeguard against cyber threats,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership.

“We can’t wait for another emergency to shore up our talent pipeline and staff the government with cybersecurity experts, and that is why the Cybersecurity Talent Initiative is so important.”

The first cohort partnered with the Central Intelligence Agency, Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Election Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of Naval Intelligence to place applicants in the first cohort, as well as Mastercard, Microsoft and Workday as private sector partners.

“The HHS Office of Information Security is excited to continue to partner with the Cybersecurity Talent Initiative in 2020,” said Janet Vogel, chief information security officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, in the news release.

“Together we will address the growing need for talent to safeguard the nation’s health and human services digital infrastructure from cyber threats. We were thrilled to be part of the inaugural year of the initiative. In the coming year, we remain committed to public-private partnerships that identify the best emerging digital leaders from the participating colleges and universities.”

According to Amante, now that the pilot cohort has been placed, the Partnership plans to expand the program to include more agencies and therefore more available positions.

Applications for the second cohort are open now and close Nov. 13, with agency placement offers anticipated for spring 2021.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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