In 2018, I attended an event at my public university where a large percentage of the student body had transferred from a local community college. The event was one of a few organized each year to connect students from underrepresented demographics with professionals in the security sphere. Many, like myself, are first-generation college students and first-generation Americans.
We sat facing a panel of representatives who came to speak with us about working in national security. In the staggering discussion of acronyms, vague job descriptions, unpaid internships, prestigious fellowships, and nonchalant paths to success, it became clear that the surest way into public service was through personal connections, financial flexibility and an insane amount of luck.
As millennials become the dominant workforce and Gen Z increases its presence in the workforce, the security sector must find a way to effectively attract and integrate diverse talent with the greatest ability to navigate new frontiers and develop innovative methods to protect the nation’s interests.
Restricted pathways lead to restricted access
I noticed a pattern in talent recruitment related to national security: vague answers about hiring processes; representatives’ own paths into security that reflected a different era; and advice for solving the jigsaw puzzle of USAjobs amounted to “good luck.” We were advised of internships that required financial privilege often lacking among a public university crowd.
Military enlistment was also a common recommendation, despite its strict barrier to entry and monolithic environment that is not suited to everyone. Regarding the clearance process, international experience was desired, however, someone maintaining foreign contacts could label them persona non grata. Studying abroad can very expensive and having many foreign contacts can’t be helped if you were part of an immigrant family. How then, is it possible to meet requirements seemingly designed for a specific demographic?
In response, many precocious young people flock to the nation’s capital hoping to be ‘discovered’ by someone with the right connections at the right time. Similar sentiments were echoed among student focus groups gathered to collect data for an upcoming CNAS report on the current challenges faced by current and aspiring public servants across a range of backgrounds.
The national security sector diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have sought to highlight the value it can bring to the federal workforce. A 2020 Government Accountability Report found that while diversity increased within the Intelligence Community between 2011 and 2019, it failed to meet important benchmarks within its senior ranks. Individuals outside of the traditional profiles that continue to dominate the security profession are being filtered out of the pipeline despite being told how much they are needed.
If federal agencies want to cast a wide net to catch unique skills and perspectives, they must employ a more effective strategy to communicate to prospective students how to navigate the obstacle course of entering the public sector.
Attracting diverse candidates requires diverse approach
Recruiters should look more like their targeted audience when representing their agency to interested students from different regional, economic, and ethnic demographics. A small public university in a lower cost of living city will likely service a different demographic of students than a private university in an area with much higher costs of living.
Recruiters should more closely fit profiles of the student communities they want to connect with to build trust and provide personal relatability. If students can see themselves in the professionals they meet, it will more positively inform their impression of public service as accessible, rather than unattainable, to applicants coming from outside the boundaries of the DMV.
With USAjobs as the main avenue for entry into public service, hopeful applicants need more than a website, resume template, and posting date to successfully use the notoriously opaque system. Outreach initiatives should include a how-to for navigating and deconstructing federal hiring processes to prospective students. With students left trying to make sense of an inefficient system, many will fall through the cracks waiting for a response or forgo the journey to take their skills elsewhere.
Programs such as the Recent Graduate Pathways Program and Presidential Management Fellows Program are useful options for degree-holding applicants to pursue internships post-graduation who otherwise might not have been able to during their studies. However, while these programs offer paid employment if selected, they require application within a two-year window and are not well advertised to current students or graduates.
A more concerted effort is needed to market pathways programs through universities and social media spaces to reach current and former students. Pathways program application windows should be extended beyond the 2-year timeframe as many graduates are often unaware of their existence until it is too late. This leaves prospects to incur more debt through continued education otherwise not necessary, a pivot to private sector competitors or total abandonment of potential.
The next generation of leaders in public service are jumping through costly and complicated hoops for the chance to serve their country when they should be able to enter through the front door.
Celina Pouchet is a former researcher for the Center for a New American Security and co-author of “The Future of Civilians in National Security” CNAS report.