Ask leaders across the government and intelligence community what their number one challenge is today, and you shouldn’t be surprised to hear many of them say: hiring and retaining a cleared workforce. A massive reduction in the number of individuals with security clearances, coupled with issues causing record delays in security clearance processing times, have created a human resources crisis.

Almost any organization will say their people are their biggest resource, but the demands – and stakes – are even higher in the intelligence community. Workers are trusted with some of the most important and sensitive missions in government – so how can leaders address hiring challenges and help build a trusted workforce now and into the future?

While clearance policy and workforce issues will be addressed across several sessions at next week’s Intelligence and National Security Summit, hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and AFCEA, one panel, in particular, is focused on recruiting and developing the workforce of the future. ClearanceJobs interviewed Col. Jennifer Sovada, Chief of ISR Talent Management for the U.S. Air Force about how she’s addressing personnel issues and helping the Air Force advance. She’ll be sharing more of her thoughts with Intel Summit attendees.

“Talent management is an area that we need to be concerned about, because talent is in demand everywhere we turn,” said Col. Sovada. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an intelligence professional, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cyber security professional and HR professional. It really doesn’t change the fact that we need quality people. And more importantly, we need quality people who are willing to protect our nation to do what’s necessary in order to be a part of the infrastructure and the system that allows every human being to have the rights that they have gained and earned by being a U.S. citizen.”

Col. Sovada emphasized that the U.S. Air Force is keenly focused on building a workforce for the future. Including advancing the combined mission of military, civilian and contract professionals.

“One of the things that we do is we try to figure out where the overlap is and where the gaps are so that we can try to build a workforce that can integrate on a daily basis to allow for comprehensive and total mission success,” she notes.

Col. Sovada said the ISR Flight Plan outlines the need for a digital workforce, and a workforce that can be developed and retained. The Air Force understands it’s not just competing against its adversaries, but with peer competitors. One of the ways Air Force ISR has advanced its mission is by updating the Career Field Education and Training plan and developing a talent management framework. In a military career and promotion system that can seem rigid and formulaic, Air Force ISR has given service members the chance to take the reins of their career track and development.

“Each individual officer defined success for themselves,” said Col. Sovada. “Does that mean that you want to be promoted and maybe compete for general officer, or does that mean you want to be a specialist who understands a craft very well? And for us it doesn’t matter which one you want to be, because we need them both.”

Embracing the concept of a career lattice vs. a career ladder, Air Force ISR still has core competencies and a structure, but it allows officers to maneuver within that structure, said Col. Sovada. “It allows for maximum freedom, so that people feel like they are empowered to do something that they love to do, they’re empowered to develop, and they’re empowered to look to the future and see themselves in it.”

The new system has been in place for eight months, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Col. Sovada emphasized it has allowed individuals who couldn’t see themselves building a future or a career with the Air Force, to suddenly see their career possibilities.

Unique Hiring Challenges, Similar Hiring Mantras

On its face, a career in the intelligence community may seem completely different than a career in Silicon Valley. But candidates who step back to consider the incentives and intangibles would likely find a government looking to innovate and compete when it comes to attracting and retaining the right workers – and a significant number of professionals both willing and interested in taking on that mission.

“We don’t have problems recruiting people,” noted Col. Sovada. “We have issues with the time that it takes to actually onboard them or to get them into the program or to get them through the wickets of the system to get approved to be actually be a part of the enterprise. So I think that one of the things that we need really need to focus on is trying to figure out how do we do things faster to get people on board while still maintaining the integrity of ensuring that people who deserve a clearance, get a clearance.”

The Air Force is specifically looking at how to get people into schooling options sooner, or engaged in meaningful work even as they await a security clearance. With a strong commercial sector, the military faces the same difficulty as other defense employers – with more current job opportunities than professionals to fill them, how do you attract a candidate to a program if they know they’ll have a months-long onboarding process? Col. Sovada noted that engaging personnel early, and keeping them involved in a lengthy onboarding process is key. And where they’re able to get personnel to work on unclassified programs right away, they do that.

Another area where the military is competitive with the commercial sector is its training programs. Col. Sovada said they have created a database of opportunities for workers across the service – everything from free, online courses to top universities. Individuals can pursue opportunities and decide if there is something they’d like to pursue. If so, there are funds available even at the lowest, squadron levels, for teams to invest in their people and pay for training.

The program combines two aspects of talent management that are gaining traction across both the government and commercial sector – continuing education and individualism. Team members with the interest and initiative can take their careers to the next level – and in some cases get the military to pay for it.

At the core of these innovations is a move away from a one-size-fits-all promotion plan and career track, to talent management that is hardwired toward advancing the overall workforce and ensuring it fits with organization goals.

“One of the biggest things that we have seen a change in what we’re trying to drive a change in is that it’s no longer putting a body in a billet,” said Col. Sovada. “We’re trying to really figure out if that person – and not a body, but a person – should be going into a certain job, and trying to figure out how do we develop them to create the next leader, the next technician, the next specialist who understands the problem set and is able to best get after the solution so that we can continue to work in our resource constrained environment, while still allowing them to succeed personally and also continuing to do the mission.”

To learn more about what the U.S. Air Force and other intelligence community leaders are doing to advance personnel and human resources issues, register to attend the upcoming Intelligence and National Security Summit, being held September 4 and 5 in National Harbor, MD. 

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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.