SIGINT Emerges From the Shadows Part Four: Recruitment

Intelligence agencies have turned to social media and advertising campaigns as recruitment tools in an increasingly competitive job market. The limited supply of those with skills in computer science and cyber security means that university graduates can earn significant sums in the private sector that government agencies have struggled to match. It is therefore no surprise that SIGINT agencies struggle to recruit and retain the necessary talent.

Even for graduates that opt for a government career, there is an additional intragovernmental competition with various government organisations competing for the same skilled recruits. According to Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, ‘there’s a head-to-head battle between CIA and NSA for every new cyber employee.’ Furthermore, as discussed in my previous blog on privacy debates, SIGINT agencies have seen their reputations suffer as a result of Snowden’s leaked NSA documents. Working for a SIGINT agency is likely met with a greater stigma today that it might have done previously. Reaching out publicly is one way SIGINT agencies can reverse this trend.

CSE, GCHQ and the NSA routinely tweet on their qualities as an employer (the NSA even has a separate careers twitter handle). GCHQ has used reverse graffiti to advertise careers in Shoreditch – a trendy borough of London frequented by tech-savvy hipster graduates. GCHQ has also created more cyber security pathways through summer schools, initiatives to get more women into the industry and an improved presence at both schools and universities — measures that both correct the cyber security skill shortage and enhance their reputation in the process.

Recognising that they cannot compete on pay with the private sector, these agencies have responded with competitive non-salary benefits. Promises of an interesting mission and meaningful work feature prominently in their recruitment message. Flexible working hours and generous holiday allowances are mentioned as a part of these agencies’ family-friendly brand while a significant investment in employee education and training reassures potential recruits that they can further develop their skills and career capital by joining. Yet, none of these attractive non-salary benefits will help SIGINT agencies hit their recruitment targets if potential applicants are not aware of them — public engagement is therefore vital to ongoing recruitment challenges.

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