Nearshore Americas

Breakdown: White House Recommends Skills-Based Hires for Cybersec

The White House officially issued a recommendation to private companies and government agencies when it comes to hiring for cybersecurity. 

In short, they should widen their hunt to include people with the skills needed instead of sticking to those with the academic credentials

What happened?: White House officials met in late April with “more than 30 companies and institutions representing dozens of industries” to push their recommendations for cybersecurity hirings.

The quote: “Skills-based hiring is a key priority, particularly with the emergence of new technologies like AI and machine learning,” stated Rob Shriver, Deputy Director of the White House’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

  • “Americans with the right skills should have the chance to join the federal workforce, regardless of how they gained those skills,” he added.

Leading by example: The White House itself committed to overhaul the federal hiring process, shifting its focus for talent hunting from a degree-based search to a skills-based one for tech employees. The change will take place by summer of this year.

  • Several companies –Cisco, Motorola Solutions, Union Pacific Railroad and Verizon among them– will invest in education for cybersecurity professionals.

Degrees VS Skills: For years, a debate has been taking place within the IT industry on whether companies should stick to traditional hiring practices (hunting for people with the appropriate academic credentials) or if they should be more flexible, upskilling from within their organizations or hiring persons who can prove they have the skills necessary, even with no college degree or certification to prove it.

  • The tech world is characterized by a self-upgrading mindset, with an almost DIY approach to many tasks. It’s not uncommon for tech executives to regard skills-based hiring as just another avenue for recruitment. In Mexico, for example, more and more engineers are coming out of online colleges and learning platforms.
  • Some executives, however, still see value in formal education. In their eyes, the college experience provides, at the very least, an opportunity to develop soft and business skills too. We’ve seen graduates from elite institutions getting preferential treatment in hiring processes precisely because of that.

The gap: For cybersecurity specifically, the talent shortage is quite the strong argument in favor of skills-based hiring. 

  • There are currently more than half a million cybersec positions open across the US, according to US government data. 
  • The World Economic Forum estimates that the global cybersec shortage could reach 85 million positions by 2030, causing nearly US$8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenue. 
  • Data breaches and cyber warfare have grown concerningly common over the past five years. It is estimated that, in 2023, a cyber attack took place every 39 seconds.

The socio-economic angle: The White House underscored that hiring for skills instead of degrees opens opportunities to individuals –and even whole communities– who seldom have access to higher education. 

  • That rings particularly true for Latin America and the Caribbean, where levels of disparity are infamously high. US companies still hire talent remotely; more so in areas where the labor supply is short. 
  • “In order for the industry to push back against the talent gap, and to provide young folks with better employment options, we should start opening the hiring scope, lowering those filters –sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit– a bit,” argued Alberto Peniche, Mexico Country Director for the International Youth Foundation (IYF). “This will give visibility to those sections of the population that don’t have a bachelor’s degree, that are not college engineers, but who also have a lot to offer”.

NSAM’s take: We don’t have a dog in the “skills VS degrees” debate, but we do understand that there are forces pushing companies –IT and otherwise– to be more elastic about who and how they’re hiring for specialized skills such as cybersec, AI, cloud, etc.

The story has been the same for years: educational institutions are not able to produce enough tech talents to meet the increasing levels of industry demand. And even if they graduate enough software and AI engineers, cybersecurity specialists, etc.,the process is so slow that much of their skills are not as market relevant anymore once they’re out in the job market. Not even engineer factories like China can keep up with their own demand.

Flexibility seems to be the way to go for tech at the moment. From skills-based hiring, to AI co-piloting and even low-code/no-code platforms, companies are waking up to the fact that the traditional academy-industry pipeline isn’t cutting any more. 

The White House’s recommendation has a bit of a protectionist ring to it. American jobs should go to Americans. But even then, the fact that the Biden-Harris administration felt compelled to push for skill-hires underscores the fact that, in cybersecurity and other technologies, the urge for tech talent is strong. 

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A shift in hiring practices might be to the advantage of nearshore providers and talents. More and more companies are waking up to the benefits of remote nearshore hiring, whether directly or through a vendor. 

That does not mean, however, that Latin American and Caribbean countries should sit back and abandon all attempts at formal education for their tech workforce. We’ve already heard warnings of where that might lead, eventually: a low-cost spiral. If the region wants to truly succeed as a source for engineers, technology and innovation, it should put its money where its ambitions lie.

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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