Industry Spotlight: Homeland Security

The US may be pouring billions into homeland security, including funds to target cyberterrorism, but these outlays don't necessarily translate into easy pickings for information technology professionals seeking work in this sector.

Those with security clearances and expertise in a security niche, such as encryption or biometrics, have an edge in seeking employment on homeland-security projects. But even for those with years of security experience, the field is difficult to break into, because:
  • Government bureaucracy slows hiring.
  • Jobs may be contingent on federal contracts being awarded to private-sector employers.
  • Security clearances may be necessary, whether for employment at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or companies working on government contracts.
  • The work isn't concentrated in one place. Jobs exist at the federal, state and local levels of government, as well as at small businesses and corporations.
Michael Fitzgerald, principal consultant at staffing firm Winter, Wyman & Company, sees homeland security as a "growth area" for IT workers, yet notes that the complications of job hunting in the field can be discouraging to techies accustomed to faster hiring processes.
Techies may also have the misconception that working in homeland security, even for the DHS itself, is like working for a spy agency. It's not, Fitzgerald cautions. Tackling the innovative challenges of the post-9/11 world certainly makes up a portion of the IT work available on homeland security projects, but not all of it, he says. "There's a lot of work that is just humdrum IT work," such as updating and maintaining computer systems and other such functional tasks, he notes.

Look Down the Private Path

But the hiring situation may be improving, especially as DHS awards IT-related contracts to companies. "There's a lot of activity," says Jacob Goodwin, editor-in-chief of Government Security News. "It's not a slam-dunk [for job seekers], but it's a growth opportunity."

Furthermore, the security concerns spawned by 9/11 have created opportunities beyond those classified strictly as homeland security. Brian Drum, president and CEO of recruitment firm Drum Associates, says that major companies must often retool their IT systems and data centers to cope with the possibility of power-grid problems, terrorist attacks and other unforeseen events.

Such work can entail:
  • Developing biometric identification for smart cards.
  • Sharing information between government agencies through databases, intranets and other communication systems.
  • Protecting the Internet and other networks from attack.
  • Designing back-up systems.
Bring It All Home

If you're seeking work in homeland security, keep the following in mind:
  • Be Prepared for Bureaucracy: Don't discount the power of government bureaucracy to create obstacles to hiring. That is particularly true for those seeking work at DHS, says Fitzgerald, who notes the "long and trying process" many job seekers will face. "You need to examine whether you're patient enough to make this happen," he says.
  • Look Beyond the Government: Don't make the mistake of thinking that the DHS is where all the action is. "The best and most important IT work is not done by government employees who are on the government payroll," Goodwin says. "It's done by contractors."
  • Follow the Contracts: Because many jobs in homeland security exist outside government, follow the trail of government contracts to find which private-sector employers are working on DHS-related projects. Check out articles at Government Security News, Government Technology and Washington Technology for leads. Conferences, such as the RSA Conference, is another way to learn about who's working on homeland security projects.
  • Use Your Clearance: If you have a security clearance, you will have a much better chance of finding work in homeland security. "Security clearances are normally required to be an applicable candidate for this space," Fitzgerald says.

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