America’s intelligence agencies find creative ways to compete for talentOn March 5, 2018 by Zander
AMERICA’S intelligence agencies are struggling to attract and retain talent. Leon Panetta, a former Pentagon and CIA boss, says this is “a developing crisis”. Barbs from President Donald Trump have chipped away at the prestige of work that some consider already tarnished by leaks and the belief that “enhanced interrogations” is another way of saying torture. The backlog of people waiting for a security clearance approval or renewal has swollen to 700,000 or so, with an average waiting time of well over a year. Many applicants simply give up.
The squeeze is tightest in cyber-security, programming, engineering and data science. Deborah Kircher at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says entry-level data analysts earn $25,000-50,000 more a year in the private sector. Others report bigger differences. At the Pentagon’s Central Command in Tampa, some data scientists’ salaries have fallen from about $180,000 to roughly $100,000, says one who left for higher pay which, for shorter contracts at least, can reach $350,000 a year. Hiring by Disney and other firms whittled his old team of eight down to one.
Until the agencies solve this problem, he says, they will fall short in their mission or end up paying more for expertise from contractors. By one estimate, contractors provide a third of the intelligence community’s workforce. This can sap morale, as government analysts who quit for a higher contractor salary are often assigned, sometimes just days later, to their former workplace, says Ben Venzke, boss of Intel Center, a Virginian firm that sells reports on extremist activity.
Part of the problem is the demand in the private sector for skills that used to be needed almost exclusively by government agencies, says Robert Cardillo, head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). To hire people for geospatial data analysis, he must now compete with firms like Fitbit, a maker of activity-measurement gadgets. One result of this, says Mr Panetta, the former CIA chief, is “a real tug-of-war” inside agencies, between reformers keen to make the government careers more attractive and an old guard that resists innovation in hiring and employment conditions.
The NGA now encourages certain staff to work temporarily for private firms while continuing to draw a government salary. After six months or a year, they return, bringing “invaluable” skills to the NGA, Mr Cardillo says. Firms return the favour by quietly lending the NGA experts in app development and database security. There is also a greater willingness to let intelligence experts moonlight. Not only do staff top up their salaries, they become happier employees, says Chris Burgess, a former CIA station chief. His sideline? Importing household decorations into America.