One of President Trump’s first moves in office was to order a sweeping hiring freeze across the federal government, preventing hiring for all jobs except for narrow exemptions in national security and the military. Although the executive order hasn’t stirred as much controversy has Trump’s more recent orders on immigration, it will have extensive consequences for government cybersecurity.
Trump has championed cybersecurity as one of the priorities of his new administration (although his executive order on the matter is yet to be finalized). But as long as the hiring freeze continues, critical cybersecurity jobs will go unfilled and students who received federal scholarships to fill those positions will instead be saddled with surprise debt.
Because the federal government has struggled to recruit qualified cybersecurity professionals, it offers several scholarship programs to encourage new graduates to work in the public sector. In exchange for tuition, students are required to take government jobs after graduation. If they fail to find a job, graduates have to reimburse the government.
The CyberCorps Scholarship for Service, established in 2014 and administered by the Office of Personnel Management and the National Science Foundation, is one of the largest of these programs. CyberCorps students attend 66 universities throughout the country, studying computer science and law, and are required to complete internships at government agencies during their enrollment.
But because of Trump’s hiring freeze, students graduating this May can’t be hired by federal agencies, which means the government won’t get the cybersecurity expertise it desperately needs. Now, instead of taking jobs at the FBI or DHS, students who have been preparing to defend the country from sophisticated cyberattacks can try to find IT jobs in local, state, or tribal governments — or pay back their loans.
In addition to tuition money, which varies by institution, CyberCorps also provides living stipends of up to $34,000 per year, travel stipends so students can attend job interviews and recruiting events, and reimbursements for healthcare and textbooks. If the CyberCorps students can’t find jobs after graduation, they could suddenly and unexpectedly owe anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000.
“Prior to the hiring freeze, we were told if we don’t secure employment, we’ll have to pay back tuition and everything else — probably a couple hundred thousand dollars,” a CyberCorps student told TechCrunch. “We don’t know if it would be structured like a loan or if it would all come down on us at once.”
This student, as well as other participants interviewed by TechCrunch, requested anonymity because they feared they would be denied future employment if they spoke out.
“I think all of us would still like the opportunity to work for the government, even though the civil service is in rough shape under the new administration,” another student said. “There’s bipartisan agreement that the government needs cybersecurity personnel badly, but on the other hand, they can’t hire.”
Students said that, despite numerous attempts to pry information from OPM about their employment status, the agency had not given them clear answers. On Feb. 11, OPM issued a memo stating that CyberCorps students could be hired “only if the position is exempted.”
According to OPM, agency leaders “have discretion to determine whether cybersecurity positions fall into a national security or public safety exemption category,” meaning that it’s possible a handful of CyberCorps students could still end up with jobs — if the head of the hiring agency says it’s okay.
Students interviewed by TechCrunch had already received job offers from federal agencies but, because their start dates were scheduled for after graduation, those offers are likely no longer on the table. OPM has instructed agencies to reconsider job offers with start dates later than Feb. 22. With federal agencies after the question, students can still look for jobs in state and local governments, but they say that the types of technical cybersecurity positions they’ve trained for aren’t available at the state level.
“It’s not realistic at all to expect us to move into a state government,” one student explained. “This program was meant to attract qualified people to agencies who had difficulty attracting them in the first place. NSA won’t have trouble because it’s somewhat glamorous. But agencies like DOT need cybersecurity personnel but they have difficulty attracting them because of pay and the prestige of working for Google or Oracle.”
The National Security Agency has its own version of the CyberCorps scholarship, called the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program. It is likely exempted from the hiring freeze because of NSA’s role in national security, but OPM hasn’t issued clear guidance about the Stokes program.
Even though the fate of CyberCorps students is unclear, federal officials are still encouraging students to join the program. US Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas and a member of the Homeland Security Committee, touted the program during the RSA conference last week.
“Thousands of students have gone through this program, allowing us to recruit them. America’s doors must stay open to high-skilled workers,” McCaul said.
He also noted that cybersecurity is an urgent issue for the new administration. “We are in the fight of our digital lives and we are not winning,” he added. McCaul’s office declined to comment on the record about the hiring freeze and its implications for the CyberCorps.
“We’re mostly disheartened by OPM,” a student told TechCrunch. “They are the only ones you can go to about the hiring freeze. Even though they manage our program, we haven’t heard a word from them. We’re entirely under their care.”
Improving the pipeline for the cybersecurity workforce was a priority for the Obama administration. CyberCorps was authorized under the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014, and Obama outlined an expansion of the CyberCorps in the Cybersecurity National Action Plan released last February. Obama’s budget set aside $62 million for CyberCorps and other education programs, including loan forgiveness for cybersecurity students who didn’t attend a CyberCorps school but later joined the federal government.