The U.S. approach to cyber talent shortages needs to include students and candidates outside of traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, backgrounds, the Biden administration’s nominee for national cyber director said during his nomination hearing Thursday.
Harry Coker Jr., a 20-year Navy veteran and former intelligence executive, was tapped for the position in July by the White House and has occupied leaderships positions at the National Security Agency and the CIA. During the hearing Nov. 2, he emphasized the need upskill state and local governments, as well as federal agencies, to better defend against digital threats.
“When I was growing up, cyber — although it wasn’t called ‘cyber’ — was focused purely on STEM folks, people that had that interest,” he said. “That’s no longer the case, and that has to be messaged.”
The administration and Congress have recognized that many federal offices have a responsibility to be cyber secure, whether or not they deal with technology or national security on a regular basis.
For example, engineers at the Department of Energy have been instructed by National Cyber Strategy unveiled in July to build security into infrastructure instead of just applying patches once problems arise. The Society for Human Resource Management has partnered with the White House to provide cyber training for HR personnel.
It’s also been a priority of the Office of Personnel Management to reform the way agencies look for and place cyber job candidates. For years, HR shops have managed cyber positions using occupational series that are outdated or insufficiently precise, according to the recent cyber workforce and education strategy. Pay is often much higher for similar jobs in the private sector, forcing agencies to devise recruitment bonuses or incentives to build out their teams.
Young people are also critical to the future of these efforts, public officials have said, given 7% of the federal workforce is under 30. This year, there are roughly 4 million cybersecurity professionals needed worldwide, according to research by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, a nonprofit. Meanwhile, the private and public sector are competing for the same pool of candidates.
For the federal cyber workforce, a majority of hires in recent years were GS-11 and above, said Erin Weiss Kaya, senior cyber talent and organizational strategist at Booz Allen.
“This means that entering most cyber positions in the federal government requires proof of specialized experience in the field at, very roughly, [the] equivalent of achieving Army Captain ranking,” she said. However, she said that a formal degree is not the only way to show expertise.
Agencies have begun to come around on that understanding by handing down guidance on skills-based hiring that values candidates who obtain boot camp certifications or other self-taught skills.
“We need to change the way we look at vacancy notices [and] job questionnaires,” Coker said. “In cyber, it should not be a requirement for everyone to have a four year degree.”
Coker, if confirmed, would succeed Chris Inglis, who stepped down in February after having served as the first confirmed national cyber director in 2021.
Since then, Kemba Walden has served as the acting official, though The Washington Post reported that she was not considered for confirmation due to outstanding debt issues that some claimed would make her candidacy vulnerable.
Coker also briefly touched on artificial intelligence, which dominated headlines this week after President Joe Biden, and his Office of Management and Budget, put forward new standards for AI safety and security.
ONCD has a seat on the White House’s AI council to contribute its perspective these developing capabilities Coker said.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.