The unemployment rate across the country continues to drop. December’s figures won’t be reported until Friday, but November’s figures were just 3.7% nationwide. That’s great news for those looking to ring in the new year by finding a new job. But bad news for employers, who continue struggling to fill job openings.

In perhaps no other field is this more pronounced than IT and cyber, with has boasted a 0% unemployment rate for the past several years. In perhaps no region is the competition more fierce than in Washington, D.C, where the government and private sector continue to compete for cyber talent, and fill their obvious cybersecurity gaps. The past several years have seen the end of sequestration and significant growth in the defense budget, in particular, with its $716 billion budget. The Defense Department is eager to replace outdated legacy systems, including the technologies used to manage background investigation cases (clearly an area in need following the 2015 Office of Personnel Management breach, which affected more than 20 million). And it needs software developers and cybersecurity experts to do so.

The actual figures are hard to pin down, but as of 2017, cyber job openings were already up 74%, and unfilled openings in the U.S. alone grew to well over 500,000. Washington, D.C. is also cited as the metro with the most unfilled openings – thanks to the demands of the federal government and associated contractors.

Amazon is Coming to Town

The numbers are already not in an IT hiring manager’s favor, but the impending arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 to Arlington is only going to increase the pressure. Amazon is expected to hire approximately 25,000 workers in its new headquarters, which is to be split between the Washington, D.C. suburb and New York City.

“What this means for recruiters and local companies is more job competition, wage competition and potential for employee attrition,” notes Maria Whitney, a senior cloud recruiter at Smartronix. “Recruiters should be thinking about building those relationships with current employees, engaging with their current top talent to reinforce the company’s mission, goals and most importantly — engage employees.”

Employee retention is critical, notes Whitney, as today’s full-employment job market means recruiters are all competing for a pool that’s already at work – somewhere.

A report by the Wall Street Journal speculates Amazon may look to veterans to help it fill its hiring gap. Approximately 250,000 service members leave the military each year – but not all of them are interested in working in Washington, or pursuing a career in cyber. Another issue is that while some veterans leave the military with cybersecurity skills, many more are hoping to use GI bill benefits to get the required training. That puts them at the ‘entry-level’ of the IT hiring spectrum when they begin their job search, while most employers (including Amazon) are looking full fully qualified mid-and-senior level engineers. As has often been stated, it’s not really a personnel gap that’s the problem – it’s a skills and experience gap.

What Cyber Skills are Most In Demand?

The Northern Virginia Technology Council is a technology trade organization serving the Northern Virginia tech community. They recently released a report outlining the skills and certifications most in-demand for software developers and cybersecurity engineers. The report states that employers have the most difficulty filling mid-level positions, and an easier time acquiring entry-level talent. It also outlines the specific skills most in-demand for those coveted software and cybersecurity experts.

The NVTC review present few surprises when it comes to what skills are in demand for each profession – the most cited skill on software developer resumes is coding languages; cybersecurity resumes tend to focus on frameworks and operating environments, such as Unix and Linux. When it comes to certifications, they were less emphasized in software developer resumes, but Comp TIA Security+ occurred most frequently, in 20% of resumes. If you’re looking to land a cybersecurity job, recruiters emphasized the importance of the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Regardless of the position, NVTC notes the challenge in analyzing the gaps between employer needs and candidate experience – particularly because the needs across tech positions are often unique to the company and position – a problem candidates should take into consideration as they tailor their resumes for a position, and a fact hiring managers should consider as they sift through candidates with broad based or entry-level IT experience.

“Proving skill in specific coding languages is critical for software developers, while specific certifications and frameworks are more important for cybersecurity engineers. This does not suggest that proficiency in coding is not required for cybersecurity or that certain certifications are not necessary for software developers. Instead, it may be that the “signals” of competency for each role are slightly different. Workforce development stakeholders should work with job candidates to effectively tailor their résumé to highlight those competencies and credentials that employers are most interested in for a particular role, which may be narrower than both what may be desired for a role and what a candidate may be proficient in.”

-NVTC Report,Understanding Employer Demand for Cybersecurity and Software Development Skills in the Greater Washington Region

Developing the Right IT Workforce for Washington

The NVTC report demonstrates that it’s not just the lack of tech professionals that’s the problem – it’s the lack of individuals with the right combination of skills, experiences, credentials, and security clearance. Hiring managers frequently cited that when it comes to government cyber jobs, the position requirements vary contract-by-contract, and are stipulated by the federal government — including requirements for an active federal security clearance. Applicants need both foundational knowledge, and the adaptability and soft skills to succeed in a government technology career.

The numbers show the mismatch in number of applicants to positions will remain an issue through at least 2021. The number of tech positions is growing, and while the number of STEM graduates is increasing (the U.S. reported 568,000 STEM graduates in 2015) – the number of job openings outpaces supply. Couple that with current clearance processing times (well over 500 days for a Top Secret clearance and over 200 days for a Secret clearance throughout 2018) – and it’s clear a tech talent acquisition strategy for the next two years will demand serious use of pipelining. The need for talent may be immediate, but today’s hiring strategies should focus on both immediate requirements, and pipelining prospects at least one-to-two years out.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.