Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 3, 2012

Finding a job in homeland security

Filed under: Education — by Christopher Bellavita on January 3, 2012

Jeff Cottam was 16 in September, 2001. Today he holds an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in the same field, with a homeland security emphasis. He also has “a deep desire to serve in the homeland security field.”

Last month Jeff wrote a letter to Homeland Security Today describing how and why he is “losing faith in my education.”

He has a job, and he realizes he is fortunate to have job in this economy. But it’s not a homeland security job.


“Seeing as DHS was established in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack our nation has ever faced, I thought that pursuing an education which focuses primarily on this field would be more desirable; especially as it is such a rarity on the graduate level. To my dismay, this is apparently not the case.”

Jeff has applied to over 100 federal and other agencies. “I have not had one phone call informing me I passed the first phase in the application process.”

In addition to filling out applications and sending resumes, Jeff has also done face-to-face, friend-of-a-friend networking.

“The federal application process is mind numbing,” he told me in a phone call on Monday. “And I keep getting the same advice from the people I talk to: put your time in; your time will come.”

Jeff wasn’t whining when we spoke; and he wanted to make sure I understood that. He knows his limited experience — even including an internship with ATF — and the economy don’t make it easy to find the job he wants. But as he was finishing his graduate program, he did “expect that after 18 months or so I’d be an agent somewhere.”

That hasn’t happened.

“They don’t tell you that when you’re in grad school,” he said.

Jeff’s letter to Homeland Security Today referenced the many schools that offer homeland security degrees and specializations:

“I thought it should be brought to your attention that despite the fact that these respectable programs exist, they offer little hope to students graduating with little to no experience in the field who seek to contribute their skills immediately….I feel that this [homeland security education] is not as effective as it should be for such a relatively new field.”


I agree with the first part of Jeff’s assessment: a degree does not translate into a job.

People with a homeland security related degree and little relevant work experience have to compete in an economy that has (among other features):

– a decreasing number of state and local homeland security-related jobs,

– fewer than 100,000 projected federal jobs in DHS and other federal agencies that have something to do with homeland security,

– and a “bleak glut” of unemployed veterans: 850,000 veterans can’t find work now, including 250,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

David Silverberg, the Homeland Security Today editor, disagrees with the second part of Jeff’s assessment about the effectiveness of a homeland security degree. Silverberg believes a person has a better chance finding a job within the enterprise — and being promoted — “with a homeland security education than without one.”


I think it can also be helpful to think about homeland security as a field where you have as good a chance creating your own job as you do finding a homeland security job you’ll fit into.

It’s still an open question (at least to me) what homeland security is. I continue to think that openness is a good thing because it keeps conversation (and job possibilities) open for what is to come in homeland security, rather than focusing exclusively on what it has been during its first decade.

In my experience a good post-secondary education (as opposed to graduate training) is largely about learning – or rediscovering –  how to be curious, think critically, communicate effectively and work collaboratively with other people. There are a lot of ways to gain that knowledge – whether it involves discussing great ideas or getting your hands dirty – but the payoff is a set of skills for a “field” where the half life of knowledge is months, if not weeks.

Duqu anyone?


Silverberg’s response to Jeff Cottam’s letter noted that homeland security has an especially acute need for people who understand cybersecurity.

Cyber is not the only need for Homeland Security 2.0, but it’s one that can serve a point I want to make.

I am struck by the number of homeland security executives I run into who remain clueless about the nature and scope of cyber security issues. During seminars I’m involved in, it’s the one topic everyone takes notes on.  I think it is  because few executives believe they really understand what cyber security issues are or how important they could be to homeland security.

When I spoke with Jeff, he mentioned he spent about 30% of his job working with data bases. From that perspective, one might argue that Jeff already has a homeland security job. But I’m not sure he realizes it.

No it’s not his dream job. But it is a foot in the door, or at least a door, leading into the wider world of homeland security.

Working on data bases is not being a cyber warrior. But what else is going on in his city and his state that is related to cyber security? How can he connect with that world?

Everywhere I’ve looked, small groups of overworked men and women have responsibility for the continuously metamorphosing cyber domain that may or may not be a big part of homeland security’s future.  I’m not sure how many job openings there are for “cyber security agent.”  But I believe this is a terrain ripe for creating a homeland security job.

I wonder what other openings there are to create homeland security jobs that do not already exist.


The Wall Street Journal reported on a study of 10,000 people. People in that study between 18 and 42 years of age had, on average, 11 jobs.  That’s a new job — in a new organization or not — every two years or so.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people like Jeff who have desire, education, skills and a job to take advantage of those significant opportunities to create – rather than find – a homeland security job worth having.

I hope homeland security educational programs are teaching that idea as a part of their programs.

I also hope those programs talk straight with prospective students — including veterans returning to school — about the real job opportunities in homeland security and what it takes to exploit those opportunities.

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Comment by bellavita

January 3, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

For a very interesting description about how one person broke into the emergency management field, see “Thinking of a Career in Emergency Management?” at http://www.emergencymgmt.com/training/Career-in-Emergency-Management-061511.html?elq=5a07785f9dde4e15b77b13bce4d52629. Check out the comments to that post for additional perspectives.

Comment by mcb

January 3, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

Despite the misleading title “homeland security” is still mostly plain old emergency management in most communities. Okay, everyone’s mission statement says something about terror and the direct reading instruments are Olve Drab or Coyote Tan now instead of International Orange or Safety Yellow, but that’s about it. In the world of emergency management CJS degrees are not nearly so valued as a Master’s in Public Administration with experience in firefighting/hazmat/EMS at the city/county/state level. As for the glut of deserving people interested in a federal appointment, it seems the only hope an untried young person has of hooking up with the DHS leviathan is after a tour of service (if not 20 years) in the military. After that Jeff might be able to compete for a position with ICE, if he speaks Spanish like a native. Once inside, one hopes he’ll be able to lateral around until he finds a place where he can do good work. Hate to say it, especially to someone who has gone to great lengths to prepare himself, but the “homeland security” world is more like Rescue Me that it is 24 or NCIS. If homeland security programs are not teaching this to their students/clients and lining them up with internships in which real world realities are illuminated they are no better than the diploma mills churning out CJS AAs by the thousands.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

January 3, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

Let’s start with this;


Most of the state’s positions in purely homeland security, if there is such a thing, were funded with UASI grants and they have all pretty much dried up.
It’s very hard to fathom a 29 year old GS15 Chief of staff but DHS has them.

It’s also hard to fathom SES’ “leaders” whose biggest accomplishments might have been rolling out the new penny leading DHS. That’s just one example. It’s a wicked problem to shoot the rapids of hiring and gate keepers too.

I also believe you need “advocates” when the certification is posted to act on your behalf.
While these may seem like they’re snipes or derogatory comments, they are not; just observations.

There is a quirky nepotism of sorts that one must hurdle in order to “get in”. The alternative is to be a contractor and that friends, is fraught with whimsical danger and little opportunity for the professional homeland security practitioner.
The Federal Government work force differs from the DoD in one particular fashion; The Fed’s want specialists and the DoD wants generalists.

Once one is pigeonholed in some aspect of homeland security, it is difficult to move laterally much less vertically. There is also the lack of movement within the enterprise that causes both bottle necking, stagnation, and a degree of intellectual burnout. You could always count on new blood every 24-36 months in the DoD. You extend that out over a large installation or unit and there is always people coming and going and the mission was never ending.

Different perspectives, different opinions, different experiences, create an intellectual diversity that is lacking in the homeland security arena.

Again just one man’s opinion based on, I am sure, a biased observation.

So taking all this into account and the OPM methodology of creating transparency and opportunity one could easily see someone having a very difficult time breaking in to the “biz”.

It does not help that we have a difficult time defining what homeland security is and how it lattices to other and all aspects of life and the interdependencies it has. Some of the growing pains in terms of opportunities stems from the immaturity of the organization juxtaposed against the legacy maturity of the organizations that make up the enterprise.

In past postings the discussions have covered some aspect of all these aforementioned points of view. The education in Homeland Security does push the envelope on the discussion though; is Homeland security a tangible thing, like accounting or biology or it an idea, a philosophy or observed phenomena? Is it a derivative, multiplicative, or quotient of other activities?

Recently, there was some press about America being short some 200,000 welders and that shortage was a reason for California to give a contract to China for some work. The theme is the shortage of hard skilled activities in a high unemployment environment.

Is homeland security a hard skilled area like “the trades” or is it merely an intellectual activity that is still so ill-defined that we don’t know how to build and prepare a work force to execute it? Is prevention the measure of acumen or is response during a crisis the litmus test?

With regard to cyber activities; as we accelerate forward into the future our reliance on technology and cyber connectivity only growing, it would make sense to have some modicum of knowledge or practical application in the fields of INFOSEC/OPSEC and cyber activity. The crossroads will be balancing the use of technology to prevent or mitigate threats or vulnerabilities versus the diminishing line between civil liberties and security.

The maybe good news is the work force that is getting ready to retire will create opportunities-maybe. Advances in technology will eliminate the necessity for human activity and outsourcing will have a new name but that’s what it will be; finding something not necessarily someone to do a data driven exercise for better ROI.

Economic opportunities might create different themes, but homeland security may morph into homeland fitness/wellness or homeland medicine before it’s all said and done. It all goes to how you define the practice and what kind of education one will need to be adaptive and exercise skill sets in a still emergent definition.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 3, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

Still basically a who you know system in Homeland Security. Why? With a full depression underway [despite what some indicators indicate] the issue of jobs is about survival of family and friends and competence, motivation, and training and education often have little to do with selection.

And then how do you see the mission and goals of the organization? Little in DHS demonstrates a “learning organization” as the public administration types advocate such as Professor Charles Wise.

This guy should have been hired long ago. Since my non-profit has no salaried employees including me, sorry I cannot offer him a job tonight.

It is a cold cold world out there.

Comment by Recession

January 3, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

Good baseline degrees in criminal justice with a homeland security bent, from legit universities is a good start – he’s got to look at local law enforcement (OK, few hiring due to economy – many laying off – but there are jobs out there), national guard or military (gain vet preference, and go in as an officer with the education he has obtained), or look at other federal agencies beyond DHS (every federal agency has a law enforcement agency of some kind and some sort of HLS mission). Another alternative is just to get ANY federal job, and then work the system to lateral where he wants to go. Breaking the first barrier is hardest.

Empathy to him, but the economy is what it is, and coming out of two wars with veterans preference rules in place, OPM’s horrific efforts at reforming the hiring websites and regulations, and HR offices throughout government that are backwaters for throw-away contract and bureaucratic staff, and not a surprise this gent hasn’t gotten so much as a “thank you” letter.

Bigger question, you teased up but we didn’t bite, is, “what is a Homeland Security degree?” At least this kid can fall back on a long standing legitimate field in CJ.

Comment by Military Service and Vocation

January 4, 2012 @ 8:04 am

As this – Depression – leads us to eventual War and this Mays Gilliam – “Goldman Sachs” riddled WH has done much damage to our beloved Republic, my advice to anyone younger seeking a job is to find the military branch of service they might prefer and get some experience under their belt by serving the nation and themselves fidnding something they might have some passion for….

Let’s be realistic because while Barry Oobama has been from my perspective – a gentleman whose policies I concur w/many who refer to as “Acts of Treason” against the US Constitution or Mitt Romney who is from Massachusetts and disliked by many as his flip flopping is as certain as Newt’s dysfunctions ..

..well, the jobs prospects are getting fewer and fewer and starting out, young folks can help themselves by enlisting and for two years of their young Life, serve and while getting physically fit w/o the cost of a monthly gym fee, keeping a weary eye on an economy certain to fail as a resuylt in the void in any leadership.

W/spiralling costs for academich preparation, military service should be first in choice and from the experience gained and the future so bleak, signing up for reenlistment until a job can be secured as the food pantries are running out of food!

Each and every day and as our national debt increases to phenomenal heights, We here on “Main Street USA” are at great peril and more and more individuals will be further oppressed from nation to nation as desperate measures are taken by those governing who use force against the innocent….


Comment by Dan O'Connor

January 4, 2012 @ 11:45 am

Military re enlistment boat spaces will be at premium and not viable for long term service.

Officer positions will revert to the reserve component with competition being fierce for augmentation.

With an anticipated 20% or thereabout drawdown of service members as a means of cost reduction, the military option for employment will not be as available as its been for the last decade.

Comment by Sgt. T

January 4, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

Have to second what Dan O’Connor wrote. Especially his second comment about the drawdown. Even if you get in and serve a full enlistment, or 20 years, you’ll be competing against 10 point preference vets. Having spent over 2 years as a contractor (not for DHS), watching the “process” of how the government hires people, my conclusion is that it’s worse than you think. It was rare to have a vacancy make it to OPM before the person to fill the position was already selected. Those rare individuals that did move between federal agencies did so only when there was a strong pre-existing relationship with someone at that agency. Qualifications and motivation have no place in the assessment process where veteran’s preference is what decides if your resume makes it to a hiring manager. (I would be very surprised if any of Jeff’s applications have made it that far.) As anyone who has applied for a federal job knows, the OPM website’s pre-screening process is a textbook definition of Absurdism.

My advice to Jeff: Stop trying to get noticed by an ignorant beast that could care less. Attempting to chase a certain skill set (cyber, biodefense, physical security) entails spending time and money to hit a moving target. Assuming the seas part and the mountain comes to Mohammed Jeff will be very disappointed at life inside the citadel. (I strongly doubt much has changed since this report. http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/dhs-annual-employee-survey-managementreport-2007.pdf or this one http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/national_world&id=5017688 ) There are lots of ways to serve, and just about any of the other options would be easier and more fulfilling.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 4, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

Just for the record IMO the former civil service system was destroyed by President James Earl Carter and his Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1978. That split the former Civil Service Commission into three parts. OPM, the Office of the Special Counsel and the Merit System Protection Board. The latter two organizations were heavily politicized and staffed by non career employees mostly from the start. MSPB largely staffed on lawyers who under civil service rules were in Category B meaning policy making but not subject to merit examination but rather membership in a state bar. Career SES had their independence destroyed by the threat of geographic reassignments that they could not contest.

So federal jobs until reform occurs are in fact largely political.

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 4, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

FEMA was created by Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978. Because two of the larger components entering FEMA, the DCPA [Defense Civil Preparedness Agency]fro DoD and the FPA [Federal Preparedness Agency} from GSA has large numbers of personnel with security clearances and on average higher graded personnel than other components entering FEMA [FDAA and FIA from HUD, e.g.]the personnel of those agencies largely vested with their own importance because of their clearances ran FEMA until Director James Lee Witt implemented the recommendations of the so-call Trefry Report found at:

Trefry Report—http://www.fas.org/sgp/library/trefry.pdf.

This report prepared during the George H.W. Bush Administration concluded that the personnel security system in FEMA was corrupt and unnecessary. The result is that James Lee Witt reduced clearances in FEMA by 45% thus allowing the agency to operate as it should have from the beginning.

All civil servants are subject to a Suitability test under 5 CFR (OPM Regs) but many agencies used security background investigations unnecessarily to meet this requirement. The purposes are completely different.

What is faced in today’s civil service environment is a large number of positions requiring security clearances and that favors DoD and veterans also. But one of the reasons that DHS in not a well funcitoning agency is for precisely the reasons described in FEMA’s historical record by the Trefry Report.

Even Presidential mandates to give security clearance reciprocity have not been observed. Access to classified information is a separate rung and often the “need-to-know” doctrine is manipulated by bureaucrats to prevent detection of those perceived as rivals of their waste, fraud, and abuse.

My guess is that those who guard the defenses of the National Security State seldom allow those not in it to review their activities including of course the Congress.

Comment by Margie Bovard

January 5, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

It’s hard to get a job with a degree in Homeland Security when the person interviewing you Does Not have a degree in Homeland Security…..

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Comment by Travis

January 18, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

Jeff I feel your pain! Even as a Vet with a 10 pt preference and a B.S. in Homeland Security & a minor in Asset Protection & Security, I have not even made it past the first selection process in the two yrs since I graduated. I now know why! The current employess withing the agency come from two completely different sides (most grandfathered in when the agency was formed). It’s funny because both have been metioned above. The 1st is from the EMT,Fire, Rescue background and the 2nd is fromt the CJ field. Both hate each other, but more importantly they both hate this new degree in Homeland Security. I live in Kentucky and the State Director for DHS didn’t even know the state colleges even offered such a program (1 college had already been offering it for 4yrs). Shouldn’t this be where his recruitment pool comes from? Nope! With my military experience and combat experience (16 months) plus education I can honestly say that both the backgrounds mentioned above are completley wrong for the job and that is why things like Katrina will happen again! Cops that carry pistols (wrong equipment) cannot mentally handle a gun toting terrorist in a calm and orderly fashion! Of course not every issue would involve terrorism (maybe only 1%) more often it would be natural desasters. The military tackles logistical issues such as Katrina on a daily basis. I could go on and on but it would’nt change anything! Good Luck

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August 13, 2012 @ 2:16 am

[…] when the very importance, practicality, and perhaps even existence of this subject as a separate academic field is in question, the choice […]

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