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13 August 2007

Numbers game

With the increasing proliferation of intelligence studies programs within academia, and the ever growing size of classes within existing intelligence academies, we have begun to ponder in discussion the question of what do with these volumes of new graduates. After all, most academic programs have pursued growth in the inevitable pattern of most fiefdoms (for good or for ill), in order to be able to afford instructors, buildings, and all the interesting toys of the trade. But to what end?

To be sure, there is a significant need for additional intelligence professionals, and the creation of a good analysts and operators is the work of years, perhaps even decades. Those entering as freshman undergraduates will not be in the workforce until four or five years hence, and even then will most likely assume entry level positions. (Although more than a few stellar individuals may emerge to build entire new programs, as we have seen in the past, having worked for years during their time in school.) A decade hence, the majority will most likely be just coming into their own as senior analysts and junior managers.

But as we contemplate this pipeline from the perspective of the community, we seriously question whether the existing clearance system will be able to handle this volume of new, entry level recruits – particularly when they are geographically concentrated in a handful of areas. While the hiring sprees of the post 9/11 period were impressive, the creaking system shows no sign of reform. Given that less than a third of that population will be eligible for clearances in the first place (assuming no change to existing standards), we are looking at a glut of graduates entering the workforce that will not be assuming traditional roles within major agencies.

Of course, new positions within homeland security, at lower clearance standards, have been opening up – particularly in the state and local arena. Likewise, there are a number of non-cleared, intelligence related positions in marketing / business development and other proposal work, technical writing, open source intelligence and media analysis that have been emerging among the contractor shops. The private military companies are another outstanding question mark, for their eventual growth and shape is extremely difficult to predict at the moment.

The corporate world takes its percentage, with the ranks of competitive and business intelligence growing year by year (although constantly in the fight for budget, resources, and management attention in most shops – or in the consultants continual dance.) So too the new roles within corporate security and related critical infrastructure protection, closely tied to homeland security responsibilities but often even more global in perspective. There are even a few consulting roles in that space, for non-combatant and medical evacuation operations, travel intelligence, and political risk analysis.

As we contemplate the shining young faces of this years’ cohort, we greatly wonder if the programs that are taking new students’ money - and given the current costs of higher education, quite a lot of it indeed - are investing enough in the actions required to ensure placement in the field later on. In part, this is a matter of relationship building, most critically with the agencies and contracting shops that can expedite clearances for new hires, across a diverse enough set of offices and locations to be able to absorb the ranks of the freshly graduated. But it will also entail the cultivation of entirely different sorts of employers in the private sector, to take those whose past, or even current inclinations (rather than derogatory records), would have them seek work elsewhere within the field.

We also wonder if these programs will be able to incorporate the development of the kinds of skills these students will need to survive in the private sector (as we have seen more than occasional trouble among those that went directly into the contracting route, let alone a world in which classic tradecraft is adapted to entirely new ends).

In many ways, despite the ongoing demographic revolution within the intelligence community, it is a profession which has forgotten how to incorporate its apprentices. As a craft-based vocation, in which guilds are enshrined and mythos most sacred, it is critically important to bring the new initiates into the fold through a deliberate and considered pathway. This is not to say such efforts can ever be perfect, but all too often we see ad hoc hires, body shop dynamics, and the terrible calculus of immediate billets over-riding the longer term cultivation of the essential next generation.

Let us hope that the new academic programs - and their more established but rapidly growing counterparts - take close heed, and pursue now the long term investment in their programs that will be required to support growing populations of graduates and alumni moving forward.

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