The Upcoming Personnel Crisis at the CIA
Years ago when I worked at the CIA, I was part of a few panels and groups working to tackle a variety of personnel issues at the Agency. Most of the issues centered around retention and compensation. The crux of the problem was the expense of living in the Washington DC area. New hires arriving at the CIA would face one to two years of training and preparation before their first overseas assignment. Many new hires, especially those with families, were finding it difficult to live in the DC area. USG salaries had been outstripped by the rising cost of housing and other expenses. Newly hired personnel were leaving at a concerning rate. The Agency came up with some stopgap solutions to stem the losses but these were temporary. The cost of this living problem will soon become worse.
Amazon is building a new headquarters in Northern Virginia. Boeing has announced it will be moving its headquarters from Chicago to Northern Virginia. Other companies will follow suit. While these headquarter moves will bring new jobs to the region, they will also drive up costs in the DC area, especially housing. Many of the headquarter jobs these companies bring are high paying, great for local hires, and for those moving to Northern Virginia from outside the area. CIA personnel, especially new hires, and government workers in general, do not earn what Amazon and Boeing headquarters personnel make. We may likely see a trend similar to San Francisco where the cost of living has risen to dizzying heights, especially housing prices. The latest figures coming out of San Francisco show that a family of four earning $105,000 annually is considered low income. This will make it extremely difficult for new hires, earning in the range of mid $50,000 to low $60,000, to live in the area.
At this point, I suspect the natural tendency of some senior and former CIA officers will be to say they were able to do it when they joined and the new people should tough it out, or some version of that argument. It is based on the "in my day" argument. When we joined, a house was still affordable, and the cost of living was reasonable. Over time the cost of homeownership has grown dramatically, far outstripping salaries. While a new government hire in the 1970s and 1980s could buy a home and make ends meet, in the 21st-century homeownership is out of the reach of many new hires. They must make do with renting or living far out and dealing with commutes of 1.5 to 3 hours each way. Soon even rents will become exorbitant. The cost of living in the DC area is already over 50% higher than the national average.
New hires are the lifeblood of the CIA. They are the follow-on generations. These are the people who replace those that retire or move up into management. They do the day-to-day work. There was a period in the Directorate of Operations (DO) where a decline in new hires created a professional gap. For a variety of reasons, mostly cost-cutting, DO training classes shrank. That decline had a long-term effect. As time went on we did not have enough officers at the mid-level range. These were the people who did the majority of recruiting and handling sources. If we begin to lose new hires because they can't afford to live in the DC area we will face another, similar shortage.
The CIA and the federal government need to begin planning now on how to address a potential hiring problem in the future instead of waiting until the crisis is upon them—as they so often do.