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Cyber workers in high demand

– In the Washington area, the concentration of government agencies and contractors brimming with computer geeks rivals any cyber defense area on the planet. And in this age of growing cyber threats, those firms are engaged in a cyber-hiring competition so fierce that one expert called it “fratricide on the parkway.”

In suburban Maryland, The National Security Agency at Fort Meade – the center of the cyber galaxy – has thousands of computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers gathering foreign intelligence electronically and defending the government’s classified computer systems.

Working for the government can have its benefits, including the gratification of public service in national security, job security and good benefits, but private industry tends to pay more. A technical whiz with two years’ NSA experience and a security clearance might have started at NSA at $60,000 but could easily command $100,000 in the private sector firms near NSA, industry officials said.

The CIA, Department of Homeland Security and FBI – whose offices are scattered throughout the Washington region – are also recruiting people who can write code, reverse engineer malware and probe computer systems for vulnerabilities.

“They’re all stealing from each other,” Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, a cyber training organization, said about all the agencies chasing after the same talent pool. “There’s a head-to-head battle between CIA and NSA for every new cyber employee. Now, DHS is in the fight, too.”

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said she is seeking to hire 600 new cyber workers. DHS is responsible for securing the unclassified federal civilian computer networks and coordinates with the owners of the nation’s critical systems – water, energy, transportation and other vital networks that need to be protected. DHS also can provide forensic aid and help a company recover after a network intrusion.

Four years ago, DHS had 40 people in cyber, and today, it has 400. Now it is seeking to build a far larger government cyber squad in addition to the 1,500 cyber contractors who also work for the agency, officials said.

“We don’t have signing bonuses, unfortunately; we are not the NBA,” Napolitano said. “But if you want to be in an area where the national mission is absolutely key, where it’s fast-developing, where you can be in on the ground floor on something of major significance to the public interest and use skills that you have developed in cyber, you need to come work with us because that’s exactly what we are doing every day.”

Napolitano is so concerned about the issue that she formed a task force on cyber skills in June to foster development of a national security workforce with cyber capabilities and to help DHS better recruit and retain talent.

One key task force recommendation is that the government reserve for government employees the most technically demanding jobs, such as “penetration testing,” or probing networks for vulnerabilities, and “incident response,” or the cyber SWAT team for emergencies.

“In other words, stop giving cool jobs to contractors,” Paller said.