DHS faces challenge in hiring 1,000 security experts

Shortage of needed skills prompts hiring competition with private firms, other agencies

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's effort to hire some 1,000 new cybersecurity experts could hit a wall because people with such skills are increasingly hard to find, according to security experts.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced last week that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget have both agreed to allow the agency to hire up to 1,000 security experts over the next three years to ramp up its cybersecurity efforts.

Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md.-based computer training and certification organization, said the DHS has a critical need for strong technical skills among its security professionals who handle tasks like intrusion analysis, malware reverse engineering, security auditing, secure code analysis, penetration testing and forensics.

"That's what DHS needs and is trying to hire," he said, adding that the agency faces strong competition for such skills from other government agencies like the National Security Agency, along with private sector companies. The problem for all of the organizations, Paller said, is that there aren't enough security professionals to meet the need.

"DHS will be forced to hire weaker people, and the cost of the very strong people will skyrocket," Paller said.

Clint Kreitner, president and CEO of the Center for Internet Security (CIS), added that the DHS must also create "leadership stability and consistency" before it can hope to attract the right kind of talent. The agency needs to address issues that have contributed to a relatively high turnover rate among midlevel to senior cybersecurity professionals at the agency, Kreitner said.

The DHS's National Cyber Security Division, which oversees day-to-day cybersecurity efforts, has seen a "tremendous amount of turnover," Kreitner said. "It has been a revolving door."

Many of the security professionals have gone on to the private sector. "My guess is they don't feel like they are contributing as much as they would like to. If people felt they were being effective they would stay longer," he said.

President Obama's delay in appointing a White House cybersecurity coordinator has also been "a source of discouragement to many who are wondering whether the reality will match the rhetoric," on cybersecurity matters, Kreitner said. Obama announced the creation of the position in May.

John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Inc., questioned whether the DHS, which employs some 200,000 people overall, really needs 1,000 new security experts.

"For a typical private industry company of that size, you might see at most 200 information security staff -- 1,000 would be unheard of," he said.

Pescatore conceded that an agency with the DHS's mission has more information security needs than a typical private-sector company. But the plan to hire 1,000 new workers is "incredibly silly and hard to do," he said. "They don't need that many. [Even] if they did, they would be much better off training existing staff to become skilled in information security."

The announcement about the DHS's hiring plans comes at a time of continuing questions about cybersecurity leadership. Critics have said that the NSA and the Department of Defense continue to exert more leadership on cybersecurity issues. The NSA's growing security leadership has led to increasing calls for the DHS to oversee the defense of government and commercial interests in cyberspace.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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