By James Cook and Teresa Thomas, The MITRE Corporation
We’ve invited the GEAR Center Challenge Winners to write “guest blogs” to provide more detail on their projects. This is the second in that series. The opinions expressed in this guest post are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of Performance.gov or U.S. General Services Administration.
Adults on the autism spectrum are widely excluded from the workforce because many organizations lack the infrastructure and training to attract, retain, and grow this uniquely talented population. According to current estimates, 2 million adults and 1 in 59 children currently test on the autism spectrum. Yet these adults are unemployed and underemployed at a rate as high as 80-90 percent, despite being a high-skilled and capable workforce. However, with the right training for job candidates, hiring managers, and colleagues, this underutilized population could be a key to strengthening the nation’s cybersecurity workforce.
The proposed Federal Neurodiversity Cyber Workforce program is a Grand Prize winner of the GEAR (Government Effectiveness Advanced Research) Center Challenge led by MITRE along with a network of private sector and academic partners. This program can add talented cyber engineers to the federal workforce while increasing job opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum. This approach can meaningfully impact both national security and significant unemployment in the autism community.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum have skills and aptitudes well suited to cyber work. These skills include attention to detail, problem solving, analytical skills, and out-of-the-box thinking.
For the Federal Government, access to cybersecurity talent is not just a requirement, it is a matter of national security. Cyber threats are growing exponentially, and a highly skilled cyber workforce defending our country’s data, critical infrastructure, and elections is imperative. Without a strong and stable cybersecurity talent pool, everything from crucial healthcare systems to sensitive personnel records could be at risk.
As the necessity for strong cyber talent grows, the cyber workforce both in and out of the public sector has not kept pace. Based on a recent report from the non-profit member Association for Cyber Professionals, (ISC)2 it is estimated that 1.8 million more cyber professionals will be needed to accommodate the predicted global shortfall by 2022. Not only is it difficult for government to hire the most talented cybersecurity engineers and analysts, but agencies also find it difficult to retain their best workers as they compete with the private sector for highly sought-after talent.
The need for increased cyber talent is well known. In 2018, a group of more than 150 leaders and workforce experts from the private sector, academia, and federal and state agencies concluded that cybersecurity training and apprenticeship programs should be a federal workforce priority (OMB Workforce Symposium Report, 2018). Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order on America’s Cybersecurity Workforce, aiming to increase the size and strength of the country’s cyber workforce.
MITRE is currently working to identify federal agencies interested in partnering on demonstration pilots for this new federal program. Once one or more initial agency partners have been identified, MITRE and its advisory partners, including: Microsoft, Drexel University, Mercyhurst University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, College Park, SAP, Specialisterne, and the DXC Dandelion Program, will put together a hiring and training plan that takes the agency’s cybersecurity needs and hiring regulations into account. Managers and colleagues will receive training on autism and ways to support their new coworkers.
A team of colleges and universities will help provide access to a talent pipeline of students on the autism spectrum who are interested in in cyber work. Job candidates for the pilot program will be provided with pre-hire training, including interviewing and resume guidance.
This program will take advantage of methods that have been proven in the private sector and apply them to the federal government. MITRE is working with government, academic, nonprofit, and private-sector partners to deliver a solution suited to the federal workforce and create a new playbook for federal agencies to cultivate this underutilized talent .
With a comprehensive approach to hiring and retaining neurodiverse workers, a successful pilot can increase the number of talented cybersecurity workers in the Federal Government while reducing underemployment among those on the autism spectrum. Leveraging the playbook, this model can be repeated across the government, dramatically increasing the cyber talent pool and job opportunities for those on the autism spectrum. This would lead to a more stable, highly qualified cyber workforce in the Federal Government that helps the nation to be more secure and lead the world in cybersecurity.
Creating a way for underserved populations to thrive while improving the nation’s cybersecurity is not only something that can be done now but must be done now. Ultimately, the potential impacts go far beyond the federal workforce. Along with the private-sector companies employing similar programs, this pilot will increase acceptance and support for those on the autism spectrum and other neurodiverse workers.