Recruitment, retention 'issues of concern' for CSIS: internal docs

Canada's spy agency says recruiting and retaining officers is a key issue of concern, according to an internal memo.

Spy agency won't divulge exact staffing levels, making it hard to know how serious the problem is

A hiring slump could have implications for how CSIS operates as it collects and analyzes intelligence on threats to Canada's national security. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The joke goes: there are three types of people who apply to work for Canada's spy agency.

"The first third had watched all the James Bond movies and thought that's what they were going to do," said Phil Gurski, a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The second third of resumés are from people "convinced that CSIS is the spawn of Satan and they want to get on the inside to see how their minds are being controlled, and that kind of thing."

The final pile of applicants are those who are serious about national security and about working for the agency, said Gurski, who now runs Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. 

That last tranche is becoming an issue, according to a briefing package prepared for CSIS Director David Vigneault by agency staff.

The report urged him to raise the agency's human resources problems with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette when she toured CSIS's Ottawa headquarters earlier this year. 

"It is an opportunity to discuss key issues of concern ... such as recruitment/retention," says the redacted briefing package, obtained through Access to Information laws.

A hiring slump could have implications for how CSIS operates as it collects and analyzes intelligence on threats to Canada's national security. The agency will also play a key role in thwarting potential election interference in the lead-up to Oct. 21.

If it's struggling to recruit and retain staff, that's a "substantial" problem, said Stephanie Carvin, a former analyst for CSIS and an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University. Carvin and Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa have interviewed dozens of workers in the intelligence community as part of their research, including about human resource issues.

"It's not like there's a crisis, but there's a risk."

Exact staffing numbers unknown

CSIS won't divulge exact staffing levels, making it hard to get a grasp of how dire the situation is. 

"What I can say is that we're always looking for Canadians who want to be part of the mission to keep their country safe," spokesperson John Townsend said.

Gone are the days of people in beige trench coats.- CSIS spokesperson John Townsend

He said CSIS received more than 40,000 resumés last year, but he wouldn't say how many landed jobs.

Townsend said the agency is focused on its co-op program to hire new university grads and is holding career fairs across the country.

"Part of our effort in recruiting top talent is educating Canadians that gone are the days of people in beige trench coats," he said.

"Diversity in background, diversity in professional experience, willingness to learn and a curious mind are the most important attributes in prospective candidates."

Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer and manager at CSIS, said those figures are secret for security reasons.

"They don't want to talk about their challenges because it could reveal some weaknesses to an opposing service who would try to infiltrate CSIS," he said.

"The other guys always try to get a mole in the system."

Briefing notes prepared for David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, urged him to raise the agency's human resources problems with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette when she toured CSIS's Ottawa headquarters earlier this year.  (CBC/Senate TV)

Most former CSIS employees who spoke to CBC News said one of the main issues in keeping employees is the mobility clause.

After would-be workers make it through the required psychological assessment, security clearance and polygraph test —a process that can sometimes take 18 months — intelligence officers must also agree to relocate anywhere across Canada, according to CSIS's job requirements. 

"That means anytime, in your service, if they need you somewhere, you must go," said Juneau-Katsuya.

"Last I heard, they would lose an average of 30 per cent [of employees] within the first five years."

Salary, promotion concerns 

Money can also be an issue. The salary range for an intelligence officer is listed as $69,350–$84,360. 

"It doesn't match what's happening in the private sector in terms of high-tech," Gurski said. 

According to Juneau-Katsuya, the salary remains the same whether the transfer is to Regina or Vancouver, cities with widely different cost of living.

Steve Waterhouse, a former security officer at the Department of National Defence, said government contracts in any department aren't necessarily as appealing as they once were.

"Nobody does it for king and country anymore," he said. "The youngsters have opportunities all around them that they do not see a brilliant career in the government services because they feel they are going to be tied down to the contract, to the long duration." 

There's also not a lot of room for analysts who want to climb the leadership pole, said Carvin.  

Worries about quality investigations

On the recruitment side, part of the problem is that Canadians aren't aware of the country's security and intelligence communities: a government-commissioned poll by Ekos Research Associates last year found that a third of respondents hadn't heard of CSIS.

Stephanie Carvin is a former analyst for CSIS and an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University. (Carleton.ca)

"In the last couple of years you've actually seen the security agencies go online, go on Twitter, just so Canadians actually even know they're there," said Carvin. 

CSIS also had to battle bad press after it settled a lawsuit in 2017 launched by five employees who alleged, in documents filed with Federal Court, that management created a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment and bullying "through its tone at the top."

Gurski warns that if intelligence agencies aren't hiring the best of the bunch, investigations could get sloppy.

"If you don't have enough bodies to do investigations, whether surveillance or [intelligence] or whatever, then you know the bad guys can get away with more because there's not a sufficient number of good guys to keep tabs on them. That's the danger," said Gurski

Carvin said it doesn't seem like the agencies are hitting the panic button yet, but their concern about staffing is worth noting. 

"In some ways I think it's a good news story because it's showing a self-awareness that maybe hadn't existed before," she said. 

The Communications Security Establishment, the agency responsible for foreign signals intelligence, says it used to have a recruitment problem largely due to the high-level technical skills and security test it requires.

"This is no longer the case today, thanks in large part to CSE's multi-disciplinary recruitment program and focused efforts to attract talent," said spokesperson Evan Koronewski.

The agency said it hired 439 co-op students during the 2018-19 fiscal year, about one-third of which were brought on permanently after they graduated.

CSE said its attrition rate is about four per cent per year.

"This is lower than the industry standard, especially in the technology field," Koronewski said, attributing the low rate to a positive work environment and employee development and support programs.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked at CBC in Nova Scotia. She can be reached at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca or @cattunneyCBC.

With a file from The Canadian Press

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?