A hiring logjam and a crisis of youth and diversity in the national security field
In the coming weeks, thousands of university students nationwide will graduate with degrees in political science, international relations, or security studies.
By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
In the coming weeks, thousands of university students nationwide will graduate with degrees in political science, international relations, or security studies. Commencement speakers will deliver messages of change, hard work, and optimism, conjuring visions of limitless possibilities ranging from the Foreign Service to development charities. And a select few will slide right into their "dream job" after graduation. However, the vast majority of graduates will discover that the field of national security and policy has become the exclusion domain of aging insiders and the privileged few. The honest, gut-punching truth is that young, talented graduates will encounter more dead ends than meaningful careers.
By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
In the coming weeks, thousands of university students nationwide will graduate with degrees in political science, international relations, or security studies. Commencement speakers will deliver messages of change, hard work, and optimism, conjuring visions of limitless possibilities ranging from the Foreign Service to development charities. And a select few will slide right into their “dream job” after graduation. However, the vast majority of graduates will discover that the field of national security and policy has become the exclusion domain of aging insiders and the privileged few. The honest, gut-punching truth is that young, talented graduates will encounter more dead ends than meaningful careers.
Internships no longer translate to jobs post-graduation, while the requirements for entry-level jobs have steadily increased. In the past, students could leverage internships at government agencies or firms for potential jobs after graduation. Yet now, internships have become a revolving door of unpaid labor with few benefits and fewer hiring opportunities afterwards. Meanwhile, entry-level jobs increasingly require established government clearances, virtually eliminating large swathes of recent graduates. Obtaining a secret clearance can take three to six months, while a TS SCI clearance can last up to two years. As of Jan 5, 2016, the Defense Security Service was sitting on a backlog of 10,000 security clearance cases. Yet in 2012, executive branch agencies spent roughly 1.6 billion on security clearances, a process plagued by delays, scandals, and accusations of fraud — raising serious questions about its effectiveness and utility.
At the same time, the gravy train of spending of the global war on terror has come to a screeching halt, ushering in a period of ugly fiscal battles, from the DoD to USAID. Consequently, agencies and firms are eliminating entry-level jobs in the name of increasing effectiveness, while maintaining bloated payrolls in administrators and senior positions. For instance, in March 2016, the DoD instituted a hiring freeze on civilian jobs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Defense Agencies, and Field Activities.
To make matters worse, USAJobs, the central hiring website for the federal government, is marginally operable on its best day and a black hole for resumes on most days. Despite attempts to revitalize and reengineer the system, USAJobs has become synonymous with governmental inefficiency. Talking to colleagues inside the Beltway, complaints of nepotism and insider favoritism are rampant. It has become a well-known secret that agencies often tailor postings on USAJobs for candidates they’ve “pre-selected,” reducing the application process to a mere formality.
In an implicit admission of a broken system, a plethora of programs were created, specifically tailored to infusing young talent into a graying field. The Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF), the Pathways Program, and the Veterans Innovation Partnership (VIP) are some of the predominant ones — all with mixed records. For example, in 2015, I received the VIP fellowship with the U.S. State Department in the Office of Global Partnerships. Armed with a recent Master’s degree from Georgetown and a deployment to Iraq as a Marine, I was the type of candidate the program was tailored for. I was promised a yearlong, immersive experience at the country’s premier diplomatic institution. Yet the promise never materialized. A three month secret-level clearance process dragged on for nearly a year, during which I took a position with a private firm. Like countless other graduates, I couldn’t afford to wait for a prospective job for months. I had bills and student loans to pay, not to mention a shred of dignity to protect. This is not a single outlier experience. Delayed clearances routinely delay State Department internships abroad, while PMF finalists struggle to find postings in their field.
If this trend continues, the national security work force will become a top-heavy hierarchy where nepotism reigns supreme and diversity and youth become empty promises. Recently, National Security Advisor Susan Rice argued that greater diversity in the national security work force, both in senior leadership and rank and file, would add incredible advantages to the field — adding a wider range of experiences and perspectives.
Although the national security field is a labyrinth of policies and agencies, a few policy changes can produce tremendous dividends. First, the sector should focus on producing more entry-level jobs (GS-9 to GS-11 positions), while reducing the surplus of managerial positions and administrative posts. Secondly, the sector should focus on enabling graduates and new hires to begin work quicker by streamlining and expediting the clearance process, while maintaining a high level of due diligence.
Lastly, employment practices should emphasize hiring more veterans (especially former enlisted), women, and minorities — ending the dominance of the Ivy League boys club.
Until the system is fixed, the same old tired ideas will circulate throughout the Beltway, producing the same old results. The country is entering its fifteenth year in the global war on terror. It is time for some fresh faces with new ideas.
Sebastian J. Bae, a star contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. Then he came back. He received his masters at Georgetown University’s security studies program, specializing in violent non-state actors and counterinsurgency. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianBae.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
More from Foreign Policy
Is Cold War Inevitable?
A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.
So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship
The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.
Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?
Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.
Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.
Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.