Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., talk in Rayburn Building on March 30, 2023.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., talk in Rayburn Building on March 30, 2023. Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

NSA woos talent with flexibility in workday, careers, director says

A spy agency that assumed employees would stick around for decades is getting comfortable with ones who come and go, Nakasone said in an interview.

SIMI VALLEY, California—New hiring practices and workday flexibility are helping the National Security Agency compete with industry for talented employees, the agency’s director said.

The spy agency is trying to hire 2,500 workers this year, which is among the biggest hiring sprees in the agency’s history, according to agency officials.

“We have to change,” said Gen. Paul Nakasone, the U.S. Army general who runs NSA and leads U.S. Cyber Command. “We have to do and account for what our workforce really wants and needs in a type of an environment to work at.”

The recruiting and retention efforts put in place over the past year are working, Nakasone said during an interview at the Reagan National Defense Forum.

“We always think about, ‘Hey, come here for three decades,’” he said. “Now we think about our employee coming here, working, maybe leaving, and then coming back, that's different. And that's really a culture change that we have looked at.”

Many private-sector workers have become accustomed to more flexible work environments, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that hasn’t always been the case in government, particularly for employees who handle classified information, who may need to work inside secure facilities.

“What we're doing right now is taking a look at 'how do we ensure that we're positioning our talent for the future, to ensure that that talent is able to be at the top of their game, to be able to address the most challenging issues that our nation faces, not only today, but well into the future',” Nakasone said.

The recent hiring push comes as workers hired during the Reagan administration retire at the same time the agency tries to expand. Some 85 percent of the current workforce joined NSA after Sept. 11, 2001.

Millennials, born between 1980 and 1996, make up roughly 42 percent of the workforce, according to NSA data. Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, makes up 35 percent of the workforce. To put this in perspective, 10 years ago, 70 percent of NSA employees were Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers now make up just 14 percent of the NSA workforce.

“This is going to reflect our ability to bring in a workforce that has much different experiences than our previous workforce did,” Nakasone said.

Kristina Walter, director of the NSA’s Future-Ready Workforce Initiative, said the agency has “seen huge generational shifts in our workforce, in just the composition of it. Post-COVID norms have changed what people expect of work, and also the competition for talent has never been as high as it is right now.”

The organization has invested in its efforts to recruit college students, Walter said. It’s also connecting with alumni working in the private sector and making it easier for previous NSA employees to return to the agency. About a dozen private-sector employees are currently returning to the NSA, Walter said.

“The alumni program that we are about four months into is really designed to stay connected to those folks so that they can partner with us in emergent technologies and cybersecurity, but also so they can return if they want to,” she said.

NSA has also created more programs to retain its current workforce.

“Burnout is high, especially when you're supporting multiple crises in the world at once,” Walter said. 

The agency has put in place physical and mental health programs that employees can attend for three hours per week, Walter said. It’s also created hybrid work options for employees.

“That's not something the intelligence community has really challenged before, because we hadn't had to, but the workforce is demanding it,” she said.

The spy organization historically says little about its operations, but there’s a push to change that as well. In 2020, the agency announced that it had found a security vulnerability in Windows 10.

“We had never done that before in our history,” Nakasone said. “That's the jumping-off point ... for us to think: ‘Hey, why don't we take an ability to do more in the public sphere?’”

NSA is now regularly sharing information with more than 750 defense companies, the general said.