NSA’s secret sauce to its employees’ loyalty

The National Security Agency gets a lot of praise and criticism for how it meets its mission.

But the one area that most people may hear about, but not truly understand, is the dedication of its people.

NSA employees are among the most loyal in government. The evidence is clear as Adm. Mike Rogers, NSA’s director and the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, pointed out recently.

“Our retention is phenomenal. In 2015, our overall retention was 96.7 percent. We lost less than 5 percent of our workforce. That includes people who just decided they just wanted to do something else and people who had been with us for 30 or 40 years and decided they were ready to retire and go do something else,” Rogers said during a speech at the Atlantic Council on Jan. 21 in Washington. “So unlike my tech-sector friends, and I’ve had this conversation with them because I asked them, we are all trying to go after the same people, all trying to generate a technical agile workforce, what works for you guys? They are somewhat amazed when I tell them our model is you stay with us for a long time. And yet the way that we can stay technically proficient, on the cutting edge, is we like to build teams or we bring together both those who are very experienced and have been with us a very long time with junior people who are just joining the organization, who come at it with a very different perspective sometimes. So it’s our ability to create that team across the spectrum, that’s the sweet spot for us.”

Advertisement

But at the same time, with such a low turnover rate, Rogers said it would take 30 years to recapitalize the workforce, so ensuring NSA has modern skills is among his top priorities.

Even for the high-end skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), NSA has a lower than industry average loss rate of under 10 percent.

Tony Sager, a former director of information assurance who retired three years ago after 35 years at NSA, said the retention rate was even higher in the 1990s, 1980s and in other past decades.

Sager said beyond the typical reasons people stay in a job — the mission, the pay or inertia — NSA does something other agencies can learn from.

“My experience in the federal government and now in industry, the investment the agency makes in people is very high. People start in intern programs, the agency pays for graduate school and other mid-career development programs, and they stay for their careers,” said Sager, now the senior vice president and chief evangelist for the Center for Internet Security, a non-profit cybersecurity education organization. “NSA has always made a big investment in people in terms of careers. Part of that is historical because in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the type of work was not being done out of NSA so newcomers had to be taught the ropes. NSA had to invest a lot in its employees.”

Sager said that perspective continues today within NSA. But the private sector and other federal agencies want employees with STEM skills that already are trained or more advanced, and typically don’t want to invest in training younger workers.

“When I started in the 1970s, management expectation was you would spend 10 percent-to-20 percent of your workday in self-development. It was written into your contracts,” he said. “There are in-house lecture series and everyone was expected to learn and teach. There are in-house schools too. The rule of thumb as a manager was if you were not spending 10 percent-to-20 percent on self-development and on your employees’ development, you were not doing your part.”

Sager added even with new pressures and fewer employees today, he still did his best to get three-month-to-12-month details for employees so they could learn about other parts of the agency or develop new skill sets.

“Part of the reason for why NSA can do this is continuity of leadership,” he said. “At other agencies that have quicker turnover, they don’t make long-term investments in people as much. They bring in good people, but no one stays long so you don’t get this bigger vision. You get that at NSA and that has helped.”

Sager said even though NSA rules are stricter than nearly every other agency — no cellphones in the building, no social media access and no access to the ubiquitous Web — recruiting early-and mid-career employees hasn’t been difficult.

A NSA spokesman said in 2015, NSA hired more than 1,500 new civilian employees, while the agency’s overall attrition was less than 1,250 employees, of which nearly 650 of those were due to some form of retirement.

The spokesman said most employees do not retire as soon as they become eligible.

“We also note that the increasing demand nationwide for cyber skills, a demand we expect to continue, does influence people departing our workforce,” the spokesman said.

The focus on people becomes even more important as NSA goes through its first major reorganization since the 1990s.

Rogers said he will release more details on his NSA21 plans in the coming weeks.

“We’ve got to integrate much more. This traditional approach we had where we created these two amazing cylinders of excellence and then built walls of granite between them is really not the way for us to do business,” he said. “Every day when we are dealing with problems, it’s about our ability to bring together those two mission sets — foreign intelligence and information assurance into one team.”

Return to the Reporter’s Notebook.