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Intelligence Strategy Highlights Workforce

A new plan aims to retain and recruit diverse experts.
By Brian Holmes and Corri Zoli
Members of the panel discussing diversity in the intelligence community at the Intelligence & National Security Summit describe the challenges they face entering the profession.

Members of the panel discussing diversity in the intelligence community at the Intelligence & National Security Summit describe the challenges they face entering the profession.

For many in the U.S. intelligence community, choosing the profession was neither a career goal nor even a consideration until later in life. Few set out to join the agencies that comprise the community while in high school or college. This pattern—usually based on a knowledge gap—needs to change immediately to meet the United States’ national imperative for a talented and diverse workforce.

Because the U.S. intelligence community’s federal workforce is responsible for a disproportionate impact on the country’s security and has global implications, leaders must take a more proactive stance, driven by their external academic engagement programs, to meet their own staffing strategies. The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy clearly expresses this imperative. In addition, the need for a workforce of experts also requires using innovative engagement solutions for intelligence community advisers to understand better and even drive technology advances in real time to broaden their own knowledge base.

The reasons for the current makeup of intelligence community employees are many. Historical unfamiliarity with the community can produce a schizophrenic public perception, resulting in an overly homogeneous workforce. In addition, a deficiency of education about a potential career in the field creates an inherent barrier to entry for many potential employees; therefore, a smaller pool of candidates for the agencies to draw on.

Unfortunately, this paradigm is counter to research that shows intelligence community agencies would benefit from socially diverse groups, which are more innovative and better at solving complex nonroutine problems, a typical environment for an intelligence officer.

Facing a similar scenario several years ago, members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as well as leaders at the National Science Foundation made policymakers and scholars more aware of the long-standing challenges the United States overall faces in STEM workforce participation. The challenges are based on the sheer size of the workforce needed to ensure U.S. economic success next to peer competitors. Increasing the number of qualified potential employees by boosting the amount of well-prepared women, minorities and people with disabilities will help meet the requirements of the United States.

And STEM professionals are necessary for more than high-tech positions; they are sorely needed in intelligence fields as well. As the U.S. Department of Education notes: “In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.” This strategic priority for STEM and computer science could just as easily be posted on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) homepage, requiring much-needed fluency for the intelligence community in interrelated fields.

The general public also may be unaware of the intelligence community’s long-standing higher education partnerships. For example, the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence initiatives prioritize diversity and inclusion in critical recruitment fields at the federal workforce level and deliberately serve in a proactive manner as a platform to educate the next generation about intelligence agencies and their missions.

The shortage of women, minorities and people with disabilities in the workforce is not new. Similar to equal opportunity programming in the U.S. military, the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2004 tasked the then-director of central intelligence to pilot innovative methods for recruiting women, minorities and individuals with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, skills, language proficiency and expertise. The National Science Foundation has had long-standing efforts to advance the size of these groups in science and engineering. And the first National Intelligence Strategy, issued in 2005, emphasized the importance of diversity for the intelligence talent pool to address the increasing complexity of national and global security challenges.

Progress is being made. From the first pilot curriculum development program at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the ODNI’s first Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence (IC CAE) program in 2005 to the present, more than 30 universities have been designated as IC CAE programs, including Syracuse University in 2019.

A complementary program is the ODNI’s Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program. The CIA originally established a program in 2000 to support unclassified basic research in areas of interest to the intelligence community. Although on average there are less than 15 intelligence community postdoctoral fellows each year, it serves as one of the few funded activities in the community that doesn’t focus on applied but instead bleeding-edge U.S. postdoctoral level research at high-quality U.S. academic institutions.

Furthermore, the program creates a platform to educate individuals conducting their post-doctorate academic work, their advisers and their peers about the community and allows the intelligence community adviser to serve as a professional mentor for the fellow. This was recently epitomized by the achievements of Helen Tran, a fellow at Stanford, who published pivotal research in flexible electronics and was elected to the first class of women IF/THEN ambassadors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Recent studies on intelligence community workforce demographics for women, minorities and people with disabilities indicate some notable successes. The number of women increased slightly for the first time in the past four years, from 38 percent to 39 percent, making up 41 percent of new hires in fiscal year 2018. Minority representation increased slightly, from 25.5 percent to 26.2 percent, during this period. In addition, minorities made up 26.1 percent of promotions earned, an increase from 24 percent the prior year. During that same four-year time period, the number of persons with disabilities working at intelligence agencies also increased from 9.3 percent to 10.5 percent.

While these improvements are an important start and evidence of commitment, more improvements are needed. Significant areas for future focus include increasing the number of diverse members of the intelligence community workforce at higher pay grades, from GS/GG-13 to senior pay levels; building an intelligence community culture of inclusion in which multiple perspectives are leveraged to solve “wicked problems;” and “hard-wiring” diversity competencies into IC CAE higher education training programs, including cross-cultural communication strategies, conflict mediation and multiple languages abilities.

The National Intelligence Strategy created the blueprint to enable the intelligence community to move to a more proactive employment posture, reflecting the diversity of the nation and the breadth and depth of its different perspectives, leadership and evolving skill sets. Activities such as the IC CAE program, if nurtured, resourced and measured effectively in alignment with the community’s skill requirements, can serve as an important lynchpin to affect national change. Ultimately, the community needs to become a destination more analogous to well-known professional occupations to ensure that the United States’ greatest challenges are met with the most talented, diverse workforce as its foundation.


Brian Holmes is the dean of the Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland.

Corri Zoli is director of research at the Institute for Security Policy & Law (SPL), associate teaching professor and co-investigator at Syracuse University’s new Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence (IC CAE) at the College of Law/Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. Government.