As geopolitical tensions rise and the federal government places a greater emphasis on shoring up national critical infrastructure and modernizing cyber defenses, having a fully staffed cyber workforce that is up to the task is paramount.

But despite the various hearings, reports, and strategies we’ve seen over the years aimed at addressing the federal cyber workforce shortcomings, the talent gap persists.

According to a report released by a working group last year, in 2022 there were over 700,000 cyber vacancies nationwide, with nearly 40,000 openings in the public sector alone.

Here’s what federal leaders need to consider as they rethink their approach to hiring and retention in 2023 to better bridge the federal talent gap before it’s too late.

Appealing to a new generation of workers

The new generation of workers has redefined the workforce as we know it. They are no longer seeking 20 to 30-year long careers with the same organization – trading pensions for unlimited paid time off, bonuses, stock options, work-from-anywhere flexibility, and more. Working in the public sector is a harder sell to the new generation than ever before.

In fact, today, only 7 percent of government employees are under the age of 30. To appeal to a new generation of talent, the federal government must rethink the incentives and resources they offer, moving away from more traditional long-term incentives and adding more dynamic “perks” into the mix.

For example, although the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) has been around since the late 80s for federal employees, the military implemented it nearly two decades after the fact. The TSP was a huge shift for the federal government. Prior to it, unless you served 20 years in the military you essentially walked away with zero benefits. It was a 20-years or nothing type of program.

But now, with TSP, federal employees and military personnel can have similar savings and tax benefits that many private corporations offer their employees under 401(k) plans – meaning they’re able to accrue and retain retirement savings regardless of tenure. Additionally, to appeal to recent college graduates, some federal agencies have begun implementing loan forgiveness for each year of cybersecurity service in the public sector.

We need more of the same – appeals to tax credits, loan forgiveness programs, more workplace flexibility and greater opportunity for short-term financial upsides to appeal to the next generation of workers. Well-resourced tech companies are offering significant incentives to the incoming workforce. What can federal agencies do to compete?

The power of public-private partnerships

While addressing workplace perks and financial incentives is necessary, agencies must also think about personal development and how they can expose employees to the same learning opportunities with cutting-edge technologies that the rest of their cohort is getting in the private sector.

For example, the Air Force runs an Education with Industry (EWI) program which loans out its fellows for an integrated, experiential learning program among industry partners within the private sector – providing these fellows with direct access to the latest emerging technologies, and a hands-on learning experience that also enables them to learn more about industry and best practices.

We need more of these kinds of programs with monetary incentives to encourage personnel to take advantage of them and to bring back what they learn while working for private partners to their public sector teams.

Similarly, there’s a greater opportunity for the federal government to fund and support additional courses and certifications for federal employees. When it comes to developing our national cyber talent, we should have specialized funding allocated so that agencies don’t have to tap into their personal budgets to invest in their personnel.

Especially in a world like cyber, where the threats and attack landscape shifts constantly, and individuals are only as valuable as they are prepared, there’s a lot more room for growth when it comes to streamlining our approach to collaborative, experiential information-sharing across the sectors.

Building together to defend forward

Today, cyberattacks are inevitable. A tradeoff of our hyperconnected, hybrid world, is that cyberattacks continue to occur – and they’ll grow more expensive and frequent with time. But our collective cyber resilience relies on the talent that’s serving our nation. And the federal government, who’s responsible for preventing cyberattacks from becoming national disasters, is the one who must be charged with ensuring we have the best and brightest minds at the forefront of our national cyber defense.

This responsibility starts with giving the federal cyber workforce the resources, incentives, education, and opportunities they need to be successful and live productive, financially fulfilling lives. Otherwise, it’s our nation’s cyber resilience that will continue to be at risk.

Gary Barlet is the current federal chief technology officer at Illumio the and the former chief information officer at the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service.

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