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Talent in high demand for cyber companies

David Tohn

David Tohn CEO of Columbia-based BTS Software Solutions joined the Maryland Tech Council to advocate for better workforce development and retention. (Submitted photo)

When Amazon held a job fair in November, the compensation packages for cleared software developers were so high that one Maryland executive said it will be a big issue in a field that’s already highly competitive.

David Tohn, CEO of Columbia-based BTS Software Solutions, has heard they hired 65 developers at that one event and he personally lost a candidate to Amazon then.

“These are people who can now work from home, work in a cool office, have their cell phones with them and have a better quality of life. It’s starting to suck existing talent out of our space,” Tohn said. “One guy was like ‘The amount of shares they’re offering to me is three kids college tuitions.’ And I’m like ‘You’re right, I can’t compete with that.’ ”

In October, Tohn joined the board of the Maryland Tech Council so he can advocate for better workforce development and retention in the tech field. It’s something he’s passionate about because there is a limited pool of cleared, qualified workers. Most candidates his company reaches out to report they get calls from three or four recruiters a week.

Companies are offering incentives like $50,000 signing bonuses, fridges fully stocked with snacks and drinks, company tickets to sports and theater and cultures with better work-life balance. And that’s before Amazon’s offers, which Tohn said based on that one job fair include salaries up to 20 to 40% higher than what the industry can offer, shares in Amazon stock and four-year guaranteed employment.

“I believe you’re going to see a really sharp spike in wage pressures in this local economy as the Amazon effect starts to ripple through, and that just makes it harder for my space to bring quality, capable cleared people to the national security mission,” Tohn said.

Contractor demand

While tech professionals in general are in demand, Maryland contractors with federal contracts often need those skills as well as a security clearance, people who have taken polygraphs and gotten clearances for top-secret or sensitive compartmentalized information.

Tim O'Ferrall

TIm O’Ferrall is general manager for the Fort Meade Alliance. (Submitted photo)

Tim O’Ferrall, general manager for the Fort Meade Alliance, said its top contractor members have 50-100 unique positions open at any given time, so they are attuned to what needs to happen to bring more people in.

“It’s lost jobs, lost tax revenue, lost business growth and potentially impacting, more importantly, the mission,” O’Ferrall said. “It could be impacting their ability to support our national security goals.”

‘Very low’ worker supply

Cyberseek.org, a project supported by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education under the U.S. Department of Commerce, rates Maryland as having a “very low” supply of cybersecurity workers, with 20,516 job openings throughout 2018-2019, out of a total employed workforce of 45,412.

Fort Meade Alliance members have started offering innovative and entertaining recruitment events to get a talent edge, such as hackathons, happy hours and even reaching out to community college and high school students, O’Ferrall said.

Praxis Engineering, which has offices in Annapolis Junction, Aberdeen and Chantilly, Virginia, started a campaign a few years ago called “Let’s Just Talk,” to develop relationships with prospective candidates outside of a formal job interview. With happy hours, panel discussions and even raffle prizes, the campaign encouraged candidates to dress casually, come without a resume, and build long-term relationships that could turn into future jobs.

Leaders at Columbia-based IntelliGenesis LLC, a contractor for the Department of Defense and intelligence community, saw on employee surveys that employees wanted more leave, so they added an extra week of paid leave and started offering 100% paid maternity leave.

Ashlee Eggerston

Ashlee Eggleston, a program/staffing manager at IntelliGenesis. (Submitted photo)

“Cybersecurity is getting big, but there’s still a small pool of those individuals,” said Ashlee Eggleston, a program/staffing manager at IntelliGenesis.“It’s making companies definitely think outside the box to attract these candidates.”

The company celebrated its 10th anniversary by taking all employees (along with a friend) to an all-inclusive five-star resort in Mexico. It offers an annual personal technology bonus and unlimited education/training.

At IntelliGenesis, most employees come from referrals. It is so highly competitive to find cleared workers, that Eggleston said the company has placed a high priority and a high budget (up to $10,000 referral bonuses) on the referral program.

“We have built our benefits, our culture, around literally what the employees wanted,” she said.

For instance, an employee referred to another employee who was coming from the health care industry and had just obtained a degree in computer science. He was hired first as an intern and then given a full-time position as the IT administrator. He took advantage of the employee training track and unlimited training budget to get a year and a half of full-stack software development experience. At the same time, IntelliGenesis processed him for his full-scope polygraph. Today, he is a cloud software engineer for the company.

At BTS, Tohn reports referrals are the biggest way the company grows as well, though he offers smaller referral bonuses. They have also been successful in helping cleared people leaving the military transition into cybersecurity.

“If you hire really good people they want the other person in their proverbial foxhole with them to be as good as they are,” Tohn said. “We found that to be more compelling than a cash bonus.”


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