Cutting-edge initiative brings cyber talent to federal agencies

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A 1998 presidential directive was far ahead of its time.

No one was yet talking about cybersecurity or secure technology solutions, yet the directive mentioned these concepts as key areas to watch out for as part of the country’s future vision.

Then, two years later, a white paper released by the Clinton administration built on this notion, suggesting a need to protect physical infrastructure in the tech space. Included in the white paper was a call to award scholarships in five different areas to build future leaders. The goal was for these students to begin their careers working in federal agencies in exchange for the scholarship money.

Out of the five academic areas, the only area that materialized for such a scholarship opportunity was cybersecurity.

The idea was transformed into a program that, in its first year, 2000, involved a handful of colleges and universities. The first cohort was an assemblage of just nine university students who were awarded scholarships in exchange for working in cyber-roles upon graduation.

Fast forward to the present. Now the program, Scholarship for Service, which is run by the National Science Foundation, has grown considerably, becoming a major pipeline for the next generation of cyber-workers.

Lead Program Director Victor Piotrowski said enrollment numbers change all the time, but he expects about 230 student participants in this most recent class. In the decade-plus of the program’s existence, close to 2,100 students have taken part. Collectively, they represent dozens of schools across the country and a wide array of interests and concentrations within the enormous umbrella of cyber.

“The geographic distribution is wide,” Piotrowski said. “We try to balance our portfolio to have diversity.”

Cohorts are also a mix of undergraduates, graduates and doctoral students. Undergraduates are eligible for $20,000 in scholarship funds; graduate students, $25,000; and doctoral students the highest, at $30,000. The main caveat is once students complete their studies, they work for a federal, local or state government entity “for as long as they received scholarship money,” he said. This usually comes to between two and three years.

Thus far, a sampling of the agencies that have enlisted scholarship winners as interns and, in some cases, staff include the FBI, CIA and Secret Service. Lesser-known and smaller governmental divisions have also found value in bringing on the students.

“Just looking at my spreadsheet (of where students are placed), it’s almost 140 lines long,” he said. “We have a job fair every January to match students and government agencies. Some will have two to three booths; others a much smaller presence.”

Piotrowski said, in terms of the students’ backgrounds and career aspirations, there’s no single path they’re taking.

“About half of them focus on the technical layer of cybersecurity — computer science, engineering, intelligence,” he noted. “There are a range of agencies interested in cyber-policy and students in that policy sphere…There are those studying health informatics crossed with cybersecurity. We have very diverse customers.”

This makes sense, given analyses and projections of the nation’s cyber-workforce. According to a National Academies report from the fall, the classification of cybersecurity is still “too broad and diverse to be treated as a single occupation.”

“Many aspects of the cybersecurity field are changing rapidly, from new technologies to the types of threats we face to the ways offensive and defensive measures are carried out,” said Diana Burley, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and an associate professor at The George Washington University.

As such, Piotrowski sees a need for interdisciplinary study for all cybersecurity practitioners. Cyber-problems cannot be solved “only on a technical level,” he said. For instance, critical thinking about big data and the place of privacy will likely dominate cyber-fields in the near future, requiring different knowledge and study.

Responsibility for running the scholarship overall goes to the National Science Foundation. But the tasks of selecting students, announcing and promoting the scholarships to spur a competitive applicant field and coming up with selection criteria all fall under the realm of the academic institutions themselves.

Piotrowski, though, spends a good deal of time interacting with scholarship recipients at their campuses, trying to steadily improve the offerings to them. He’s been impressed by their intelligence and seriousness with which they take the program, he said.

But the aspect of Scholarship for Service that most stands out over similar initiatives is its unparalleled success in placing students in agencies. Once students graduate from their university, they go through a very extensive clearance process to even be allowed inside the participating agencies. These background checks are as rigorous as any other federal worker being cleared.

Piotrowski said NSF takes a risk on the front end when it selects students because there’s no guarantee they’ll all pass the checks down the line. However, the risk has seemed to pay off. For every 100 students in the Scholarship for Service program, 94 students have been cleared and ended up with placements in agencies.

“This is unbelievably high,” the head of the program said.

And beyond the mandatory time the scholarship recipients are required to serve in cyber-roles, a substantial number are staying with governmental agencies in the long term. Piotrowski estimates that so far, 1,600 have been placed in the government permanently.

Students interested in SFS should visit www.sfs.opm.gov. Federal agencies wanting to hire students in the program or universities hoping to take part should visit www.nsf.gov and search “Cybercorps.”

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Cybersecurity, cybersecurity workforce, Government IT News, National Science Foundation (NSF), Tech, workforce
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