NIST seeks clarification from White House on hiring freeze exemption

Recruiting and hiring cybersecurity talent has long been an uphill battle for the federal government, but the National Institute of Standards and Technology wants to make sure that President Donald Trump’s 90-day hiring freeze won’t make the problem worse.

Dr. Charles Romine, director of NIST’s Information Technology Lab, said the agency has sought clarification from the White House on whether cyber workforce hiring would fall under the list of hiring freeze exemptions already provided by the Office of Personnel Managment and the Office of Mangement and Budget.

“We’re seeking clarification on that now, just to make certain, because we do want to know whether we’re going to be able to continue to recruit in this space,” Romine told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Tuesday.

Under its latest guidance on the executive order, OPM told agencies they reserve the right to grant exemptions to the hiring freeze in “critical situations.”

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Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) told the committee that uncertainty around the hiring freeze makes it even harder to recruit in-demand candidates that already command higher salary offers from Silicon Valley.

“We ought to send a strong message to the administration that these are clearly critical jobs that need to be filled, that are in our national security interest,” Bera said. “My sense is that if it’s already hard enough to recruit these individuals and hard enough to retain these individuals, let’s not make it any more difficult. That broad [executive] order, in my mind, is making us less secure, and certainly it’s worrisome.”

Gregory Wilshusen, the director of information security issues at the Government Accountability Office, told Bera that governmentwide surveys to chief information security officers demonstrate that agencies continue to find it difficult to recruit cyber talent.

“It was pretty much across-the-board that they all were very challenged to attract and retain the cyber skill sets that they needed,” Wilshusen said.

The federal government does have a few recruiting incentives, Wilshusen said, including reimbursement of student loans for new hires, which GAO already offers. Just as important, he and Romine said, is seeking candidates who already have a strong sense of civic duty

“One of the secret weapons we have in recruiting  top-notch staff is the fact that our mission is so compelling and interesting, and we work in a really terrific place,” Romine said. “So people who do feel a sense that they want to contribute through public service, we’re able to be competitive with that segment of the population.”