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Are Vets the Solution to the Cyberstaffing Gap?

As need grows for a strong government cybersecurity workforce, veterans offer a blend of discipline and technical experience.

As technology continues to speed ahead, many state and local governments are challenged with an impending shortage of IT talent to fill key positions in areas like cybersecurity. At the same time, CIOs at all levels of state and local government name cybersecurity as their No. 1 priority. To address this challenge, a growing number of states are taking a new approach: investing in veterans returning from active duty to take part in specialized cybersecurity training and fill the growing staffing gap.

Growing Demand

Cybersecurity repeatedly stands out as a top priority for state and local IT leaders, yet in a nationwide survey by the Center for Digital Government,* 93 percent of states reported cybersecurity as a current workforce gap. Numbers are similarly high for cities and counties.

Many states have partnered with local colleges and universities to offer cybertraining or internship programs as a way to attract and filter employees to public-sector roles. Case in point: In Maine, interns take on key IT projects, like writing code and conducting industry research on cutting-edge business solutions. According to state CIO Jim Smith, about 70 percent of interns go on to become full-time employees with the state. 

Investing in Veterans

A growing number of states are starting to tap a new talent pool to fill staffing needs related to cyber. It’s an approach that makes a lot of sense: A wealth of cybertalent exists among military veterans returning from active duty. 

Virginia is looking to veterans to fill its approximately 36,000 open cybersecurity positions. The Cyber Vets Virginia initiative is open to service members transitioning from the military, as well as their spouses and National Guard members, and offers free cybertraining for about 200 participants in the state. Through the program, veterans can train with top corporations like Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Yyotta and Fortinet.

The state also offers apprenticeships and sponsors the Virginia Cybersecurity Public Service Scholarship Program, which awards cybereducation funds to students committed to working in a state agency or institution. Virginia is also among select states partnering with the SANS Institute to offer a free online aptitude course called CyberStart to help drive students to cyberpositions.

Karen Jackson, Virginia’s secretary of technology, notes that reaching out to veterans is just one piece of the staffing puzzle. “We have to continue to be creative and create more opportunities to get people into the cyberpipeline. People coming out of the military generally have some kind of IT experience,” she said. “Now we want to take a continuum — put in place programs that cast the net even wider to those who don’t already have an IT background.”

In Washington state, officials are also looking at veterans as ideal candidates for cyberjobs. The state has partnered with the University of Washington to offer scholarships to veterans seeking cybersecurity degrees, and the Washington International Trade Association offers opportunities for veterans to retrain themselves for cyberwork in the public or private sector. The state also partners with local colleges on online certification programs that could help jumpstart a veteran’s retraining for a position in the cybersecurity field.

“Our veterans make great employees because they understand discipline and technology they’ve learned in the military,” said Washington Chief Information Security Officer Agnes Kirk. She also pointed out that many veterans find the transition to the public sector easier than to the private sector because of the work-life balance offered. “The private sector has a bit of a reputation for chewing through their IT people,” she said. “It’s a different mindset. It’s hard to learn a new business that way.”

Colorado recently launched a Veterans Transition Program, a paid internship for veterans with backgrounds in cybersecurity or threat intelligence seeking training for the next phase of their career. The state has partnered with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and veterans organizations to fill 10 internship positions. The program is designed to help veterans with military experience make a smooth transition to a cybersecurity career.

As chief information security officer at the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology, Deborah Blyth points out that while it’s hard to compete against the private sector’s high salaries, public service is often a good match for veterans. “They are great candidates to come to state governments. These are individuals who like to be in positions where they feel like they’re making an impact and don’t want to move around. They are coming out of the military with skills and knowledge that translate to my environment, but their resume doesn’t draw that line of distinction,” she said. “I think they’re a perfect fit, and I can train them in the pieces that are unique to my environment.”

Looking Ahead

While the trend of investing in veterans to fill cyberpositions is growing, many agree that it’s just one element of the solution to the larger challenge of nurturing cybersecurity talent in the numbers that the field needs. “The entire bubble keeps getting bigger. There are supposed to be about 1.6 million open cyberjobs by 2020,” said Jackson. “The problem is that the need is growing much faster than we can impact the supply.”
While pointing veterans toward cyber doesn’t solve the whole problem, it’s an effective way to make a dent. “There’s no one solution to fix a problem,” said Kirk. “Retraining our veterans is a super-important aspect. It could make a significant difference. We owe our veterans the opportunity to have great paying jobs and take advantage of things they’ve learned, and these are great programs. It’s a win-win.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.