Brain Drain at NSA : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

NSA falls short in hiring techs best Agency admits growing crisis as mid-level workers fill ranks By Vernon Loeb THE WASHINGTON POST July 31  When it comes to work-force problems in the federal government, the National Security Agency is a lot like the proverbial python that swallowed a pig: A huge bulge of employees hired in the boom years of the 1980s is moving slowly through the supersecret bureaucracy, leaving little room for anyone new to come into the system.

Were getting people in, but for engineers and computer scientists, were roughly $5,000 to $8,000 below entry-level salaries [in the private sector].  BILL COTTREL NSA official

THIS IS EXACTLY what NSA wanted throughout the Cold War. It stressed loyalty and eschewed layoffs as it remained largely a mystery to the outside world, intercepting electronic communications all over the world, breaking enemy codes and encrypting the nations most sensitive communications.

But now such paternalism is clouding the very future of an agency that is uniquely threatened by a new assortment of hard-to-intercept communication technologies and unable to quickly respond. The NSA is short on newer workers with cutting-edge high-tech expertise. "We have a huge problem, with the age of the work force and the very little hiring that were doing behind that, said Deborah A. Bonanni, the NSAs chief of human resources services. To try to completely churn and turnaround this work force without having a reduction in force is a very difficult problem. There is no silver bullet for that. Its actually even more complicated than that. While the agency doesnt have enough positions to offer new workers with cutting-edge computer skills, competition with private industry is fierce for those it is trying to fill.

Were getting people in, but for engineers and computer scientists, were roughly $5,000 to $8,000 below entry-level salaries [in the private sector], said Bill Cottrell, deputy director of the NSAs Office of Employment. Were trying to sell the mission. Its attracting people. Are we where we want to be? No.

Depending on level of education, entry-level engineers can earn from $41,927 to $59,094 at NSA; a computer science specialist, from $38,481 to $49,615; and a mathematician, from $38,481 to $62,680. BRAIN DRAIN IN THE RANKS

And while competition is stiff for people coming out of college, its even more intense for the agencys own mid-career computer scientists, who are suddenly resigning in large numbers, lured away by companies that have no trouble increasing their $60,000 to $70,000 salaries to $90,000 or more.

Were losing some of our best computer scientists, Bonanni said. To free up space for hiring young people with modern skills, the agency is continuing to offer early-out retirement incentives and $25,000 bonuses. Beginning in 1993, those incentives were open to all as the NSA retrenched after the Cold Wara work force that once numbered in excess of 40,000 employees has contracted by almost a third since then. But now, only those employees with outdated skills are eligible for early outs and separation bonuses  computer scientists need not apply. Within the past several months, the NSA has also begun denying internal transfers to those with critical skills  it used to encourage a computer scientist, for example, to work as an intelligence manager, but no more.

There is no easy way to offset the salaries computer scientists are now being offered by the private sector, just as government salaries make it next to impossible to to bring mid-career computer scientists and innovators from private industry into the agency. No matter how many things we tryand we have some very good programs that we offertheres a certain point at which it becomes impossible to compete with huge salaries and stock options, Bonanni said. PRIVATE SECTOR MONEY The NSAs recently announced decision to turn over to private industry the development and management of most of its nonclassified information technology in a single, 10-year contract will have major work force implications.

Worth as much as $5 billion to the eventual winning bidder, the contract will eliminate by 2002 the jobs of 1,200 to 1,500 NSA employees and an additional 800 contractors now working in nonclassified network management and security, workplace computer systems, telecommunications and network development. All of the affected federal employees, however, will be guaranteed jobs at equivalent salary levels by the winning bidder. But the agencys review of what to outsource and what to keep in-house could eventually involve mission-critical technologies that involve new ways to intercept digital communications or break encryption software.

With its work force evenly divided between support and core employees, the agency wants to realign itself so that 60 percent of its people are working at core functions. All current hiring involves only core personnel. We have, said Bonanni, some real strategic decisions we have to make.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 31, 2000


This article is typical of the massive age descrimination going on in the high tech industry. There is always fat in government agencies, but alot of it is in the HR and management not the actual workers. This fact that this spokesperson feels emboldened enough to make these comments is amazing. They out and out say that they want "young people", insinuating that older people (35 years old is considered "old" in this industry) are incapable of learning the new technologies. Keep in mind that many of the older technologies that these people have already mastered are more difficult then the newer ones that the NSA "claims" it needs. Most seasoned programmers can pick up one of the newer, easier programming languages in less then a week even if they pick up the manual and teach themselves. I know, because I have done it!

The high tech industry has gotten itself into the "cheap labor" fix with the H1B visa program. Now the government is trying to get into the act. These "non-secure" systems that they are talking about can be the back door into the main computer systems that handle national security. They should be training their "best and brightest", their loyal and experienced programmers to do these jobs. After all, these experienced people "made" that agency, as the experienced American programmer created the U. S. high tech industry. In the 1990's the quality of computer programs has gone down the toilet. This coincides with the High Tech industry's rush to push-out the most experienced programmers and replace them with cheaper labor. Ask yourself this: if you needed heart surgery, would you want to go to a heart surgeon who just graduated from medical school last week, or a seasoned doctor with over 20 years experience? More and more of our infrastructure is dependent on computer programs being written by inexperienced new gradustes and often unqualified foriegn coders (the government admits there is massive fraud in the H1B visa program).

If the NSA needs staff for the "new" (easier) technologies, they should be training their experienced, loyal staff instead of forcing the older people out the door! These people would probably be overjoyed and appreciative at the opportunity to learn new skills. Our tax dollars are being used to pay for this institutionalized age descrimination.

-- K (, July 31, 2000.

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