The recent announcement by National Cyber Director Harry Coker regarding reduced barriers for cybersecurity jobs in the federal sector, including the potential relaxation of four-year degree requirements, has sparked debate.

There are those that believe these requirements set a standard that reflects a certain level of commitment and skillset that cybersecurity professionals will need to be successful. On the other side, there are those that believe there are plenty of qualified candidates who may not possess a four-year degree but can help the nation combat its ongoing cybersecurity challenges.

While the move by Coker ultimately aims to increase the pool of qualified candidates – and it would – it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle.

The talent retention challenge

According to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies (NICCS), there are more than 570,000 open cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. alone – with open positions increasing by 35% in the last year. This enormous number includes both private sector and public sector organizations.

To address this, the government invests in several programs that help train cybersecurity professionals. However, today’s competitive landscape is not just about recruitment, it’s also about retaining existing talent. Public sector cybersecurity professionals are constantly lured by private sector offers that often promise significantly better compensation and career opportunities. This revolving door has weakened the government’s cybersecurity posture, creating a vicious cycle where the shortage becomes even more acute.

One way for the government to correct this issue would be to create a certification program with a guaranteed service commitment baked in. This program would require graduates to work for the government for a specific period of time, ensuring a proper return on investment and a more stable workforce overall.

Learning from the Army and the Marines

Beyond a certification program with a guaranteed service commitment, the government has an opportunity to reshape the perception of what it means to be a cybersecurity professional for the United States government.

The success exhibited by both the Army and the Marines in their awareness campaigns over the years provides a blueprint for the government to replicate as it pertains to cybersecurity. The ads generated by the Army and the Marines do an excellent job emphasizing the mission-focused nature of their work and the opportunity for citizens to make a real difference for the country. The federal government can adopt a similar approach to attract and retain cybersecurity talent.

Given the fragmented nature of media today, the government could be very precise and strategic about where and when they disseminated their messages, as well as which messages to highlight based on the target audiences.

The power of education and advocacy

As a founding board member of the Software in Defense Coalition – a non-profit which advocates for accelerating the adoption of emerging technology for national security missions– I’ve had firsthand experience fighting uphill battles and trying to educate people who were satisfied with the status quo.

As we got off the ground, we were talking to different groups of people on The Hill, in budget committees, and others, and we quickly learned the power behind a targeted approach to education. By tailoring the message to different stakeholder groups in a way that helped them see their own benefits for participating, we were able to secure the funding we needed and garnered interest from high schoolers who wanted to learn more and pursue careers in the field.

This same model can be applied by the government to raise public awareness and attract a diverse pool of candidates to the critical field of cybersecurity.

Coker’s initiative to reduce the barriers for cybersecurity jobs in the government is a positive step in addressing the nation’s ongoing cybersecurity hurdles. However, there are more steps to be taken at the foundational level that can truly correct this issue that’s been plaguing us for some time.

Getting qualified candidates in the door, regardless of their education, should help in increasing the overall pool of talent, but the key is in building a committed and sustainable cybersecurity workforce to protect the nation. This is no easy task, but at the heart of it is changing the way in which the average American feels about cybersecurity and the role it plays in keeping all of us safe.

Once we get that right, everything else can fall into place.

Dan Wilbricht is President of Optiv+ClearShark, a provider of cybersecurity and IT services for the federal government.

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