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,
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.
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.