An Op-Ed Submission from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance

By Chuck Alsup and Nathaniel Morra

All organizations must adapt their corporate cultures as younger generations – with new skills, different values, and high expectations – enter the workforce.  Government agencies, with their cumbersome bureaucracies and hiring processes, seem particularly slow to change.  However, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), with its demanding security requirements, has developed cultural and bureaucratic traits that may discourage millennials and the younger “Generation Z” cohort from pursuing intelligence careers.  The IC should adapt to generational trends and demands if it is to develop the critical technological skills needed to understand and combat evolving national security threats.

Intelligence depends on technological skills like never before.  Engineers develop advanced sensors and collection systems.  Experts in cybersecurity – a field that barely existed a decade ago – collect intelligence from adversaries’ networks and protect our own.  Even analysis has become highly technical; analysts must be able to make sense of massive amounts of information derived from clandestine collection, satellites, high-tech sensors, and open source research.  Political scientists must become data scientists.

Although intelligence work is more cutting-edge than ever, the government’s hiring process is mired in Cold War-era bureaucracy and secrecy.  Agencies’ reluctance to reveal the existence of sensitive roles means that applicants are often unaware of what jobs they are being considered for.  Applicants must fill out a 121-page form with information on sensitive and personal topics like foreign travel, use of alcohol and drugs, mental health counseling, and debt.  Once offered a job, it takes an average of 534 days to get the Top Secret security clearance needed to start, as more than 700,000 people are awaiting investigations. In the meantime, bills must be paid, so many candidates take other jobs, and many decide not to answer when the IC finally calls.

Once upon a time, government offered the only path for pursuing a career in intelligence, and the most innovative engineering was done at agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency.  Now, however, high-tech research is undertaken – and quickly fielded – by commercial firms.  Companies design, launch, and operate their own satellites. Cybersecurity firms identify foreign hackers.  The technical skills that are so coveted by the IC – cybersecurity, engineering, data science – are also in high-demand in industry. Even political analysis has been privatized; consulting firms do geopolitical analysis for clients as diverse as manufacturers, insurance companies, and casinos.  Often, these companies can offer a higher entry-level salary, a faster hiring process, and a better work-life balance than an intelligence agency.

One of the IC’s advantages is that it can offer a long-term career path.  But the era of a 50-year tenure at a single organization ended long ago, and many millennials may not want such predictability.  According to Time, 70% of college graduates stay at their first job less than twelve months.  A 2016 study by Deloitte reported that only 16 percent of millennials see themselves staying with their current employer for the next decade.  These short-term horizons make government intelligence careers seem unappealing.

Millennial lifestyles conflict in many ways with the Intelligence Community’s ethos.  Millennials have staggering amounts of educational debt – a burden that could complicate clearance investigations, which assume that debt is a vulnerability.  Millennials and the Generation Z cohort behind them – the so-called “Digital Natives,” or “iGen” – have grown up with technology and the notion that one must be connected at all times.  These generations (over)share the details of their lives on social media, an ingrained habit that is incompatible with the discretion valued by intelligence professionals.

Young peoples’ generally liberal attitudes toward drugs conflict with IC standards.  Drug use typically disqualifies an applicant from receiving a security clearance.  However, according to a July 2017 University of Michigan study, marijuana use among college students and young adults – perhaps spurred on by legalization at the state level – is at its highest levels ever.  More than 39 percent of college students reported using marijuana in 2016, and 54 percent reported using some illegal drug during their lifetime.  If the IC wants to recruit from these demographic groups, it may need to re-evaluate its standards on drug use – whether by permitting certain substances or by reevaluating the period of time during which one must have refrained from use.

How to Make Intelligence Careers More Appealing to Millennials

With deeply ingrained practices that seem incompatible with young peoples’ goals and lifestyles, how can the Intelligence Community appeal to millennials and digital natives?

First, the government as a whole must work to instill a sense of mission and patriotism.  It’s difficult to instill a sense of civic duty throughout a generation, but the country’s political leaders can model good behavior by changing the tenor of debates over government’s role in society, so that public service is praised rather than denigrated.

Second, the IC may need to offer higher pay for people with in-demand technical skills.  A 2017 report by the Congressional Budget Office indicated that graduates with advanced degrees earned 18 percent less in government than in the private sector.  To mitigate the pay differentials between government and industry in certain professions, lawyers, scientists, and other specialists are already on pay scales separate from the standard General Schedule (GS).  DHS provides cybersecurity professionals with a 20 to 25 percent bonus over standard pay scales.  The IC may similarly need to consider a new pay scale for employees with 21st century technical skills that are in high demand.

Third, given millennials’ predilection for changing jobs, it is no longer practical to hire people principally at the entry level. By doing so, agencies replace departing experienced staff with junior people, rather than with new hires possessing equivalent skills. To attract workers with existing experience and advanced skills, agencies must develop better mechanisms for hiring – and clearing – mid-career professionals. Moreover, to appeal to a generation of job-changers, IC recruitment efforts must emphasize that employees can gain a wide range of experiences over the course of a government career. In the IC, in other words, employees can regularly change jobs without changing employers.

Fourth, the IC should actively encourage potential applicants to consider opportunities at the many private firms that support intelligence agencies.  Although contractors must go through the same clearance process, firms can often hire staff to work on unclassified projects while they wait for their clearance, which enables them to start learning relevant skills.  Contractor careers might be appealing to millennials who like frequent change, as firms regularly offer opportunities to switch projects and take on new roles.  Most importantly, because cleared contractors are a critical component of the trusted government workforce, a highly skilled person working at one of these companies is contributing to the IC’s mission in a work environment that is flexible enough to hire and retain them.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the security clearance process must be made more efficient.  The length of time required to clear someone drives away top talent – particularly those with marketable technical skills – and prevents critical national security missions from being fulfilled.  This issue is being addressed at the highest levels of the IC and the Defense Department, but it must be solved – fast.

Although the IC has an increasing need for the skills millennials possess, it needs to make more effective efforts to compete with private sector employers for top talent.  The Intelligence Community must develop more agile and responsive processes and rules to attract the innovators whom the nation needs to keep us safe in the 21st century.

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Chuck Alsup is the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and a former senior official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  Nathaniel Morra is a graduate student at George Mason University and an intern at INSA. 

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