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Choosing A Career in Cybersecurity: Public Sector or Private Sector?

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November 3, 2015

With the proliferation of hack attacks and cybersecurity breaches, there is a growing need for cybersecurity experts and, therefore, there are an increasing number of opportunities in cybersecurity for those entering the work place or wanting to change careers to take advantage of the opportunities in this growing field. One of the first decisions someone entering this field needs to make is whether to work in the public sector or the private sector. Public sector jobs generally are with government agencies; private sector cybersecurity positions are generally with those for-profit businesses run by individuals and companies.Future prospects for cybersecurity experts are good in both sectors – the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 37 percent growth in cybersecurity jobs in both sectors by 2022. The demand for people to fill cybersecurity positions will only continue to grow as more and more information is stored electronically and as hackers become more and more sophisticated in their attacks. Government Contractors: The Intersection of the Public and Private Sectors in the Baltimore-Washington Area’s Contracting EnvironmentIt is worth noting that in the Baltimore-Washington area there is a hybrid of the public-private sector: government contractors. Government contractors are private companies that perform most of their work under contract to the federal government. Therefore – although they are private companies -- the work they do under government contracts is governed to a great extent by government regulations and bureaucracy.Public-private sector partnerships and information sharing are critical to effective cybersecurity defenses. Private sector information technology (IT) firms play an important role in helping government agencies achieve national cybersecurity objectives and to understand a cyber attack’s sources and methods to minimize threats to its systems and data. Companies regularly partner with government agencies to share information and to collaboratively address IT challenges with cybersecurity implications. In addition, companies respond to government requests for proposals (RFPs) to provide specific cybersecurity services. Before seeking a cybersecurity position in the private sector, public sector, or with a government contractor, it is important to understand the differences between and among these opportunities. The following two sections of this article discuss 1) the overall differences, including job security and workplace environment, between the public sector and the private sector and 2) differences in pay and available benefits.As a hybrid of the two sectors, government contracting will vary by private sector employer and by the specific contract that a cybersecurity expert is working on at any given time. If you want to work for a government contractor, make sure that you do your due diligence on the work factors that are important to you using, as your guide, the information presented here on the public and private sectors.   General Differences in Cybersecurity Employment in the Private Sector and the Public SectorThere are many considerations a cybersecurity professional needs to assess when making the decision to seek a job in the private sector or in the public sector. Nationwide there are more jobs available in the private sector (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 fewer than three percent of information security analysts were employed by public agencies). In the Baltimore-Washington area, however, the overwhelming percentage of private sector jobs does not hold true – especially when one takes into account the very large number of hybrid government contracting companies.In addition to the number of jobs available, there are many other factors to consider. For instance, it generally takes a very long time to secure a job in the public sector. The hiring requirements in the public sector are typically much stricter than in the private sector. Applicants for most government cybersecurity jobs must have a clean criminal record and no history of employment issues; they must pass a drug test and submit to a background check that usually includes polygraph testing. These standards may be just as high with a government contractor – or even with a private firm that is not a government contractor – but usually the hiring process is not nearly as long or as arduous in the private sector.Cybersecurity professionals in the public sector typically enjoy better job security than private sector employees -- except during major budget cuts. Public sector employees also have positions that are permanent appointments once a probationary period has been completed. When moving from one public sector position to another it is relatively easy to retain the same benefits, holidays, and sick pay that existed in a previous position.Pay raises are standard in the public sector and are given based on a schedule rather than on merit. Raises in the private sector depend on the productivity of the employee and on the financial health of the company. The price of a raise in the private sector may well be working longer hours in a more demanding work environment compared to the more predictable and stable environment of the public sector.Notwithstanding the benefits of the public sector discussed above, the benefits of working in the private sector traditionally outweigh those of the public sector. Private sector employment allows greater flexibility in moving from one job to another, and it generally is easier to quickly move up within a company because these decisions are made within the company rather than being based on bureaucratic rules and regulations.Private sector versus public sector culture needs to be examined before making the decision of choosing one sector over the other for a job. Most successful private sector organizations have clear, well-understood, job-by-job, top-to-bottom goals and objectives. In the public sector, however, government goals and objectives often are badly formulated and indecisive; and goals in the government often are contradictory, which may lead to confusion. The many and various forms of control on a government agency – there are fewer in the private sector – bring about confusion and potential delay on significant issues or decisions. The public sector is much slower to act than the private sector; there is little sense of urgency in accomplishing the work to be done. Salary and Benefit Differences Between the Public and Private SectorsAll indications are that there is ample opportunity for every level of IT security professional to command high salaries and to have access to excellent benefit packages over at least the next decade. Whether you opt for the private sector or the public sector, you will be well paid as a cybersecurity professional. According to a 2014 survey, “Cybersecurity Professional Trends: A SANS Survey”, by the SANS Institute, “Overall, professionals involved with information security command salaries and bonuses that are well above the national average for U.S. workers”.The private sector seems to have an advantage over the public sector by offering higher earning potential, but it is important to recognize that the private sector also has more low-paying cybersecurity jobs. This situation is because there is such a great variety of companies in the private sector – from new start-ups with near-empty coffers to huge, mega-million-dollar companies who can afford to pay top dollar for talent.According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for private sector cybersecurity analyst jobs in May 2013 was $44.36; the mean annual salary was $92,280. In the public sector, the mean hourly wage for the same job title was $34.72; the mean annual salary was $72,210. But a job cannot be judged on salary alone.There is another aspect to a job that makes the public sector look very attractive: the various high-quality benefits packages -- including excellent retirement benefits and favorable insurance policies -- that it offers. Someone trying to decide between joining the private sector and joining the public sector needs to consider that comparing only salaries can be misleading because of the more complete – and, generally, more generous -- array of benefits that the public sector offers compared to the average private sector job.The benefit gap between public and private sector jobs may increase in the future as private employers no longer offer traditional pension plans and as health insurance costs rise. On the other hand, another aspect to consider when comparing pay scale and benefits in the private sector versus public sector is whether a government agency will have money approved in its budget in the coming years to pay your salary. The Bottom Line: Being a Cybersecurity Professional Is the Right ChoiceWhether a job seeker chooses the private sector for the higher salary and the unlimited future prospects or the public sector for the benefits and job security, cybersecurity professionals will continue to command high salaries, enjoy excellent benefits, earn incentives, have great job satisfaction, and have many opportunities to hone their skills and increase their knowledge.
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